Originally published at Flint Magazine
Everything changes as we cross the border town of Jimaní, leaving behind the men and women hawking their duty-free microwaves, Pringles and toothbrushes through a veil of fine brown dust. Beyond a curving road begins a series of ramshackle concrete homes, some roofed by liberated USDA tarps whose stamped symbols are warped into ceiling structures. Almost all are teetering on the craggy edges of hills no longer lush, but with enough weeds and grass and stripped back trees to be striking in the fading afternoon light.
Inside the cross-border bus that makes the advertised eight-hour trip between Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the driver is fiddling with the radio. Through a wall of static, a techno-Latino track switches to a drum-heavy beat, punctuated by rapping in a language that sounds like lived-in French. The travelers, mainly Haitians returning from work across the border, rouse from the uncomfortable lethargy that took hold of the bus sometime during the second viewing of a bootleg Bollywood film. Now, surrounded by those rocky peaks and soft Creole vowels, their chatter builds to a crescendo — they are home.
Rain mists the windows as we creep down Boulevard Toussaint Louverture, a straight and long strip of asphalt road that shuttles traffic between downtown Port-au-Prince and Haiti’s airport of the same name. Outside, merchands — hawkers, vendors and purveyors of everything — line the roadside, some huddled beneath wooden structures and others trying their luck in the standstill traffic. Children jump back and forth across the one-meter deep gutters, now ferrying plastic bags and ears of corn along a stream of thick, brown water. Dogs with visible ribs and sagging nipples scramble to find shelter.
But on this track of paved road, public life is just a spectacle. One side bears nondescript warehouses and international hotels hidden behind high stone walls topped and barbed wire. The other bears a long stretch of blue tagged concrete fences that surround the vast UN-MINUSTAH complex. Helmeted peacekeepers from countries like Nepal, Guatemala and Sri Lanka man the turrets and towers surrounding the compound. They have been in operation here since 2004. They will appear again in SUVs in Port-au-Prince. And again in pickup trucks in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. And again in the form of wooden figurines sold by the roadside where the joke, I am told, is that the peacekeeper face is that of the Grim Reaper.
The bus makes its first stop in a compound packed with mini-buses or ‘tap-taps.’ They are painted in a palette of primary colors, adorned with images of the Virgin Mary and then assigned names like ‘pleasure island.’ The passengers alight at the driver’s call and for the first time, I catch more than a glimpse of the only other foreigners on board. As is the case when traveling, we will eventually meet for more than a glance. But right now, having been in Haiti for only a few hours, all of which was passed from the window seat of a bus, I did not guess they were missionaries. As I would soon learn though, most foreigners fall into just a few categories, one of which is rarely tourist.
Under a dark sky, we arrive at a dim bus stop in Pétionville, a suburb east of the city on the northern hills of the Massif de la Selle. Petionville is one of Haiti’s most affluent areas, a Beverly Hills of the former Pearl of the Antilles, harboring pockets of gated mansions and many of the same wealthy-meets-celebrity clientele. Outside the bus, my partner Justin and I scan the collection of beaten suitcases and taped cardboard boxes for an overstuffed backpack. A small group of men, moonlighting as taxi drivers, begin touting their services in a mix of Creole and French. We have already decided to walk to our hotel, just a few blocks from the bus station, on the expectation that we would arrive by late afternoon. But in the darkness, the signless streets seem like a labyrinth. Out of the crowd, Mike strides over, asking in accented English where we’re headed.
“Le Perroquet,” Justin replies, pointing to a hand-drawn dot on a black and white map. Mike says he is a good friend of the owner and picking up our backpack, walks towards his car.
When looking at a map of Hispaniola, the name given to the island that is Haiti to the west and the Dominican Republic to the east, it seems like crossing the 275-kilometer-long border should be a matter of getting on any bus that goes due west. But this man drawn line, called “a natural experiment of borders” by Jared Diamond, denotes more than just the carving of a land roughly in two. It marks the division of language, culture, environment and economics that today has come to define one place as the poorest in the Western hemisphere and prize the other as an exporter of great baseball players. Within the Caribbean, luxury travel — from beachfront resorts to hulking cruise ships — is the common factor that in the tourist mind, binds the wide reaching islands and atolls as one. Geographically, Haiti is that Caribbean. In most other respects, it could not be further away.
A few days earlier from a lush hostel pregnant with mosquitoes, Justin and I slouched over a map discussing our border crossing options. While in the north of the country we had missed the Dajabón post and now, at the end of the Dominican road in Pedernales, we were so close we could have walked. Louise, a nurse from Connecticut, appeared sometime during this conversation with a large bottle of Presidente beer in hand, and an invitation to join her in drinking it.
As the founder of a Hispaniola based non-profit, she travelled to this region of the island, crisscrossing the border and traversing the mountains to conduct cervical cancer screenings. Sitting on a fern-clad balcony, fanning away moths, Louise laid out our options: at its simplest, we could travel from Pedernales to Anse-à-Pitres, a small town bearing an ‘international market’ of second-hand clothes, plastic goods and discounted bags of U.N.-designated rice. From there, she often went by motorbike to the mountains around Thiotte.
But once, she said, she went to Jacmel.
Haiti’s southern belle stakes its claim as an artist hub perched in an aquamarine bay and surrounded by eclectic architecture painted in pastels. But the most direct way from Anse-à-Pitres to Jacmel reads like the start of a Huckleberry Finn story on steroids. A shallow wooden boat or ‘ferry,’ is piled high with cargo then boarded by passengers who wedge themselves on or in between everything else. Most online comments will detail the leaky boats, the cramped conditions and the swashing around of urine–that make the ferry crossing one taken out of necessity. For locals, it is above all, another layer of difficulty added to an already arduous trip along unpaved roads. But Louise, who opted for its directness and maybe a little of the adventure, described how the bioluminescence glowed around her; the water thick with invertebrates as she swayed and rocked in a small boat in the Caribbean Sea.
Petionville is quiet and still as we cruise down the main street to Le Perroquet. Outside, the streetlights emanate a harsh yellow glare, but reflected off the damp concrete they look like several moons mirrored in a pond. In an attempt to get his bearings, Justin squints into the night before glancing down at a map. Mike is friendly but distant and I fear my initial dithering by the bus station may have offended him.
Travel by its nature amplifies your encounters with strangers and as such, the level of trust you place in them. The gap then, between trusting everyone and trusting no one, seems to diminish until something goes either very right or very wrong and your level of openness changes all over again. I lean towards the former, believing there’s little point to travel if you can’t even consider that everyone is mostly good. But cynicism is cheap, as Graham Greene wrote in The Comedians — a book that came to immortalize Haiti’s period under Papa Doc.
And when it comes to Haiti, the oft headlined “hell on earth,” fatalism is ingrained in the psyche of those who do not live there. They do not see the bioluminescence from the boat. And at this point, having forgone the ferry and nearly opting to walk to the hotel, perhaps neither do I.
A half hour later I am seated at a high wooden bar, watching a tuxedo-clad bartender open a bottle of Haitian, Prestige beer. Nearby, a small stereo system shuffles through a soundtrack of James Bond theme songs. The bartender folds a napkin around the bottle’s midsection and then, rolling another into a quill, places it in its spout.
“Mesi,” I say, exercising one of my few Creole words.
The bar and its adjoining dining area runs a palette of polished wood, exposed brick and black wrought iron and bears a moody low light that is unexpected and enigmatic. Shirley Bassey sings the opening lines of Goldfinger. The bartender pours Justin a glass of Haiti’s finest — Barbancourt rum. With those saxophone drawls echoing throughout the subdued room, I look around and think — where the hell am I? It could be a scene lifted from an Ian Fleming book complete with an incognito bartender, silent and salient and by chance, named James. But this somewhat luxurious version of Haiti into which we have been initiated, is just Le Perroquet.
In the dining room, a loud Creole conversation is taking place with Eric, the hotel’s owner and Mike at its center. At the bar, Eric’s small, pepper-faced dog, Panda, dances around my legs, mouth ajar and ears flipped back. She is so different to the beige and bony mutts I watched earlier, skulking along Boulevard Toussaint Louverture. Tomorrow, I will notice how different this bar is from anything else; how outside the iron and wood door there is nothing of tuxedos or saxophones or faux James Bond. But for now, hungry and tired and smelling somewhat off, we order a plate of French fries and sit at the bar, swirling them in ketchup.
Downtown Port-au-Prince, the sprawling patchwork of corrugated iron and sandpapered concrete, at first seems like an act of city planning best appreciated from a bird’s-eye-view. But on Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the tangle of people, buildings and buses unfolds like a series of broad and battered dirt supermarket aisles. Mechanics’ yards are piled with tires and tended to by workers with oiled hands. Dust and diesel choke the air. In between, tap-taps stop every few feet, rattling with people and music. Men carrying bottles of water and soda weave through small traffic jams, navigating not only the cars but the lay of the land with its concrete railings and rusting hand tools set out for sale by the roadside.
As we near Port-au-Prince’s iron market, this Steinbeckian scene morphs into the innards of capitalism decanted from the mall and baking under the midday sun. Women are hawking white bags of cassava and plantains. Others are carrying pharmacy baskets of ibuprofen and aspirin, offering them by the pill, rather than the packet. Piles of donated Target and Aeropostale clothing and rows of fake Converse sneakers line the path. Small tables are covered in a potpourri of pastel and fluorescent hair clips designed to complement the weaves hanging between two sheets of plastic. As I negotiate the deep gutters and shop stalls, I am largely ignored. So far, there is no one offering to act as a guide, no one calling out ‘blan’ to get my attention as a foreigner. This, of course, would all come later. So I walk through the Macy’s of the endlessly recycled, sweating through its soupy air.
If Haiti is the Caribbean’s outlier, then the Marche de Fer is its most fitting draw card. The red and jade iron market, complete with ornate minarets, was destined to be the main hall of the Cairo train station. But when the sale from its Parisian manufacturers fell through, Haiti’s then President, Florvil Hyppolite, purchased it as part of a modernization plan. The Moorish gates are both beautiful and ridiculous and act as the entrance to three very large, very plain sheds housing everything from limp green vegetables to model-size tap-taps.
By the door of one of those sheds, we meet Patrick. He seems to have come from nowhere, appearing upon sight of two foreigners. He is tall and slim with a mass of tight dreadlocks arranged beneath a slouched beanie. His fingernails are long and curving and as we shake hands, it is an unsaid confirmation that he will be our guide. Patrick, with his good enough grasp of English, is both mystic and magnate: a guide, a stall owner, a questionable craftsman and a socialite type who lies somewhere between Rastafarian and So-Cal surfer. But. of course, you don’t really need a guide to walk through the market and — if such a thing exists — this may be Haiti’s ultimate tourist trap.
With no plan to browse specifics, we snake past aisles of oil paintings, hammered steel icons and wood carved figurines. In a place where the poor are thought to be meek and the money comes from elsewhere, vendors flaunt the same unbridled enthusiasm for salesmanship as the Home Shopping Network, even if driven by need.
The artwork gives way to sequined calabashes, hand-rolled beeswax candles and plastic dolls sprayed black and nailed to wooden boards: we are entering the Vodou section. As a religion developed among West African slaves forced to convert to Christianity, and set against a balmy Caribbean backdrop, Haitian Vodou is as fascinating as it is misunderstood. And while popular culture has largely bastardized an otherwise sophisticated system of beliefs, the ubiquity of Vodou dolls is to the vendor’s advantage. Clear plastic bags filled with red, puffy, anatomically correct dolls are stuffed in boxes and rest on benches, waiting to appear upon sight of a foreigner. They do not have the crude expressions depicted by Hollywood but instead peer out of the bag, faceless.
Patrick remains at my side, narrating the market in a quiet voice. Behind us, Justin is considering the purchase of an ornately carved walking stick. Looking at the collection of items strewn across every flat surface, I figure that one combination of oils, libations, candles and icons will help me attract wealth while another may punish my enemies.
At one stall, I linger over a line of ceramic Virgin Mary’s — her skin ranging from chocolate to porcelain, depending on the buyer’s preference. The vendor soon offers everything from a feathered calabash (to go with the bust) to a Mary the color of milky coffee. He sends a friend to find a statue the length of my arm — just in case. Then the prices begin: sixty for a bust, one hundred for a large and just thirty dollars more for a Vodou doll too.
“Gourde?” I ask Patrick, who acts as my interpreter.
“American,” he replies.
The currency here is Haitian gourde — dog-eared and dirtied, small notes are hard to find and large notes are even harder to break. Sometimes, when it is especially confusing, it’s Haitian dollars, using the same currency but harking to an era when the gourde was tied to the U.S. dollar.
On days like today, as the numbers appear and disappear on a beat-up calculator navigating the ocean of currency between Haiti and the U.S., it is plain American dollars. The price still, is exorbitant. But before I have even considered whether to enter a long game of barter, the vendor replies in English: “you have gourde? I’ll give you a price.”
When writing about a Phnom Penh ravaged by war and piracy in 1885, 19th century French traveller Xavier Brau de Saint-Pol Lias said that despite all, “a country does not simply die.” Through slavery, revolution, oppression and disaster Haiti has not yet died. But if there were a time when Port-au-Prince may have come to its closest, the 2010 earthquake that carved the city with its 7.0 magnitude, is a good place to start.
We are on route to the Champ de Mars and the market stalls have begun to thin out. The quake’s physical scars manifest in broken buildings and makeshift facades. In the city, the rows of homes are no longer toppled like fallen dominoes but as I look towards the hills they allude to former lives.
Among the rubble sandcastles, food vendors sell plantains and fruit frescos and neon sodas from beneath red umbrellas; groups of men stand in circles beneath scrawny trees, indulging in much needed respite from the heat; and elementary school students flood the street in their immaculate uniforms — their hair braided and bowed and their ties secured at the collar.
“You! You! You!” shout the younger kids as we walk past.
From a distance I had already glimpsed the Notre Dame Cathedral, its wash of baby pink, eye-catching against the city grey. But as we near, it looks like a Roman ruin with crumbling walls, glassless floral windows and thick, vein-like cracks extending from its corners. Without a roof, it could have been hollowed out by the heavens, the voices of the choir rehearsing as it collapsed, silenced in its emptiness. Around the fence that partitions the rubble from the street, a few white tarps act as triangular shelters. They are those same nylon sheets meant to provide temporary relief in the tent cities that have sprung up after the earthquake.
A city does not simply die, but maybe it can never recover.
It is late afternoon and the sun has not yet begun to fold into the horizon. We are walking back to Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines after hours passed in the National Museum studying both the tools of horror and the relics of triumph of Haiti’s revolutionary past. From the side of the road, a young stall owner yells, “where you from bitch?,” a broad grin spreading across his face. Beside me, Justin is carrying a rolled up canvas. The painting, acquired from a persistent salesman in the Champ de Mars, shows a yacht at sea cast against an orange sunset. It is Jacmel, I think.
I am the first passenger to board a tap-tap bound for Petionville. It is the kind of bus that is really some sort of pick-up truck repurposed by adding a wooden cabin and matching seat. Moments later, I am wedged between the inside wall and at least six other people inching for space on the thin bench. It is hot and dark and with each beat from the bass-heavy song playing in the front, the walls vibrate as though they are electric. I cannot see outside. There are no naked mountains, no wasted dogs, no rubble castles. So I watch the light as it streams in from between the wooden slats, casting muted lines across the faces of my neighbors.