Can I come to Haiti with you?
For the past 2 years, I’ve been traveling back and forth to Haiti to work on social issues in international development projects. I've divided my time between Washington bureaucrats of varying levels of concern for Haiti’s development, Haitian government officials with varying levels of competency, and remote Haitian communities who viewed the projects that impact their lives with varying levels of interest or suspicion. All the while, I’ve been keeping you updated on the day to day of Haiti via social media. Every time I get back to the U.S., I receive a flood of request: “Take me with you!!”
I’m not taking you to Haiti with me.
Despite my pictures, I am working. It’s challenging; the hours are long and the job is thankless. However, I will share Haiti with you because Haiti defies any attempt to define it. No matter how often I’ve been asked, I cannot find a neat description for Haiti in just a few words. Haiti is both mysterious and familiar all at once. It is breathtaking beauty, endemic poverty, and innate creativity. It’s a living contradiction that's resistant to conforming.
On my latest trip, I decided to spend a long weekend with my father and our relatives in the place of my birth, Cap-Haïtien (Cap). This weekend would mark many firsts for me, especially since I had not spent more than 30 minutes with my father in at least 10 years.
We began our weekend with a trip to the Citadelle Laferrière. The Citadelle and the ruins of Palais Sans-Souci below it are reminders of the audacity of our forefathers who threw of the shackles of slavery and declare themselves monarchs. We arrived at the base on the Citadelle after paying for a guided tour ($10 each). The moment we got out of the car, men wanting to haggle with us for the use of their horses to ride up the mountain encircled us. Overwhelmed, I eased out of the crowd while my father negotiated the price for the horse and handlers ($5 each). With all the commotion, I forgot something important: I’m afraid of horses- specifically I’m afraid of one throwing me to my death off the side of a mountain! Before I could voice my fears, however, I found myself seated on a spotted grey horse, making my way up the mountain. I nervously eyed the valley below, thinking of how annoyed my mother would be if I died.
As the horse ambled higher up the mountain, I could only see an imposing group of clouds rising above, but no Citadelle to speak of. Finally revealing itself through the clouds as we drew closer, the Citadelle seemed to appear 0ut of nowhere.
When we arrived at the fortress, I immediately got a sense of how intimidating it actually was up close. I’ve seen many fortresses and citadels in various colonial capitols, but nothing compared to the sheer size of this one. It seemed to stand watch over the entire country from its place amongst the clouds. As he took us through the different sections and chambers, the tour guide lamented that the cloudy day prevented us from seeing all the way down the valley and to the ocean. To me, however, the clouds that encircled the cannons and filled corridors of the Citadelle only added to its mystery and power.
As we left the Citadelle on our way back into town, we winded through country roads to my father’s hometown. The woman who raised him, his eldest brother’s wife, still lived in the same lakou he was raised in with my uncle. When I stepped out of the car, she embraced me warmly and fired off questions, more so to marvel at the fact that I could still speak Creole than because she didn’t already know the answers.
The reunions and introductions continued throughout the weekend as I found myself surrounded by the same high cheek-boned smile as my father, my own slanted eyes staring back at me from an endless stream of cousins, and my thoughtful cadence in Creole repeated back to me by my aunts. Whether in town or in the countryside, the warm welcomes continued as relatives and family friends immediately recognized who I was solely based on the family resemblance.
That Sunday, when my father dropped me off at my aunts’ for the elaborate preparation of the Sunday meal, they fussed over me all over again and flipped through the pictures of my family and life back in the U.S. Once it was time to actually cook though, they soon realized how useless I was in that regard and relegated me to the kiddie chair where I played with my younger cousins.
Cooking in the countryside- well, everything about country living- was another first for me. Not only was the cooking of such a large meal for all the family done on coal stoves outside, but no part of the chickens we were having that day went to waste. I ate parts of chickens I didn’t know existed, washed it all down with water from coconuts, and then shared the mangoes hanging in abundance all around us with my cousins for desert.
Up until then, I had a decidedly romantic view of what country life was and thought I’d acclimate easily. That night, I decided to forego the luxury of sleeping with a mosquito net. I was quickly made to regret it- the mosquitos feasted on me! When I finally fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning, I was awakened only a few hours later by roosters crowing and then goats bleating gayly back in response. Everyone else in the neighborhood seemed wide awake, too. Neighbors sang cheerfully as they began their days work, calling out to greet each other over fences. After trying futilely to go back to sleep, I got up and checked the time…it was 7 a.m.!
I grabbed a bucket of cool water and a ladle and made my way to the bathroom to bathe. A few minutes later, my father knocked on the door and asked what I was doing in there. I stated the obvious: I was taking a bath. He asked why he didn’t hear any water running. Exasperated, I said I was using the bucket. He laughed and told me then that he had running water- I didn’t need to use a bucket..Oops.
My sleep-deprivation was soon replaced by excitement. This was the day that we were going to the beach! Outside of Port au Prince- or, better yet, Petionville- the Haitian government and their international benefactors have invested very little in the urbanization and infrastructure of the country. This made getting to the beach, for example, a longer journey than necessary as my father navigated dusty dirt roads in the countryside, swerved passed potholes and traffic jams in Cap, and then climbed rocky mountain paths before descending to the coast.
When we finally arrived at Labadee Beach, we boarded a water taxi that took us to a secluded cove where the water was so blue that only the green of the mountains distinguished the water from the sky.
No matter how many times I go to the beaches in Haiti, I am always taken aback by how relatively untouched they are. Even the most popular beaches feel like my little secret. Here, the water was warm and enticing. Schools of fish dashed past my toes whenever I splashed in. My entire day consisted of eating lobster and mangoes, splashing around, and doing it all over again until I wore myself out.
Although I will not take you to Haiti with me, I carry it with me wherever I go. Every time I go to Haiti, I discover a little more about myself and the country of my birth.
Haiti is not for the cruise ship, all inclusive resort types. It is for the person who can laugh at the inconveniences of island life, dance when they hear the occasional echoes of drums beating in the night sky, and who is as comfortable in a 5 star hotel as they are in a bustling rural market. It's for those who can still find wonder in how little they actually know and yet keep searching for knowledge. If that’s you, my friends at the Ultimate Haiti Experience and #HaitiGotIt would certainly love to take you to Haiti!