Haitian Dreaming: A Beautiful Nation in Need
By February 2010, at least fifty-two aftershocks measuring over 4.5 on the Richter scale had been recorded in or around the colourful Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. In the regions, to the north and the west, the numbers were much more significant. Depending on who you talk to, the number of deaths caused by this horrific earthquake can range from 160,000 to 350,000 helpless citizens. At least 250,000 residential homes and 30,000 commercial buildings were also destroyed. But the numbers matter little. What matters is that one of the poorest nations on Earth, a nation that solely relied on the tourist dollar to maintain any form of status quo prior to the earthquake, was unceremoniously placed in a far worse position than ever encountered in its tumultuous history.
Some seven years later, even a superficial glance around the streets of Port-au-Prince renders nothing but heartbreak and internal despair. Like New Orleans' daily battle with the hurricane Katrina recovery, Haitians face a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year struggle to survive, rebuild and prosper. The difference is that despite its extreme poverty, New Orleans at least has some semblance of an infrastructure. Many parts of Haiti do not.
Dig a little deeper, look a little harder around the overwhelming labyrinthine streets and laneways of Port-au-Prince and it very quickly becomes apparent that it's not just housing and employment that's a pressing issue. The dozens of people -mostly male teens- that crowd around any foreigner who purchases food from the street are a surefire indication that even the tiniest morsel of food has become a monumental task for a majority percentage of that city's population. It's a famine that no one ever seems to mention.
And as a foreigner in such a country, the dilemma is how can I help? The first thing that comes to mind is to simply buy food for all in the immediate proximity. But I've learnt the hard way that that is quite possibly the worst way to handle such a situation. Doing so causes nothing but desperation and angst and more often than not, a shitstorm perpetrated by those who have missed out. The truth is that there is no simple answer, but there is one thing that those of us in a more privileged position can do.
Travel to Haiti!
Since we're here, let's start with the wonderful, eclectic, batshit crazy capital of Port-au-Prince. Settled by those pesky Spaniards in the early sixteenth century, Port-au-Prince has witnessed its fair share of heartbreak and tumult over the years. Every wannabe ruling empire has had its turn at ruling the land, the Spaniards, the French, and let's not forget planet Earth's self-appointed watchdog and all round overcompensatory little-dicked man, the United States of America. This centuries-long tug-of-war to rule supreme over the city, and thus Haiti as an entity, might sound like a terrible thing, and to those living through it, I'm sure it was. But for us unoccupied travelling types, Port-au-Prince is an absolute gangbang of the senses.
Le Grand Cimetiere
Cemeteries are always a blast. They really are. But you haven't seen anything until you've seen Le Grand Cimetiere. This place is the pure embodiment of Haitian Vodou and a convenient one-stop shop for the morbidly twisted and macabre. Haitians have always had a bit of a fetish for dark spirits and exposed corpses, but since the earthquake in 2010 the entire nation has literally run out of room to bury the dead. So, in Le Cimetiere, the bodies pile up, strewn across walkways, placed atop mausoleums, or simply thrown into uncovered, mass graves. Anywhere else, this would be front page news, but Haitians are a spiritually aware lot, and their handling of matters necro are much healthier than any other culture I've encountered. Anglo-Christians, take note.
Apart from the novelty of decomposing flesh picking at your feet, the cemetery itself is absolutely beautiful. Tributes, both Catholic and pure, unadulterated Vodou, adorn the acres that run along the Rue Cameau and for any history or architecture geek, this place is a must visit.
*When visiting Le Grand Cimetiere, please remain extra vigilante especially if you are carrying anything of value to you. While there are security guards dotted throughout, there are still pickpocket gangs roaming the grounds in search of anyone vulnerable.
Marche en Fer
While Port-au-Prince carries a vast array of incredible markets, be it local produce, artisan or slightly more upscale wares, the creme de la creme has to be the mind-blowing Marche en Fer. I hate the word foodie, it's annoying, so for the purpose of this piece, let's change it to gastronaut. For gastronauts, le Marche en Fer is a sticky wet dream. Local produce, meats, spices and unrecognisables rule the roost here, providing an infinite tasting plate of exotics that'll flush the pasty white right out of you. OCD's need not apply though. Ravaged by earthquake, the market spews from the ground at all sorts of gnarly angles, and inside, well, the place is nuts. There is no rhyme or reason to anything in this establishment. And that's okay. Go in with the attitude that you will be overwhelmed, you will get lost and you most definitely will be confronted by possessed vendors in need of an exorcism enema.
Apart from food galore, le Marche en Fer also offers acres of cheap clothing, incredible local art and the largest teenage loner bedroom of bootleg porn you've ever seen. What else do ya want?
*As you would in any crowded market, remain vigilant while visiting le Marche en Fer. Needless to say, don't be a dick and walk around with a giant camera bouncing around your sagging man breasts.
Haitian Industrial Art
It goes without saying that Port-au-Prince is an extremely poor city. With 85% of its citizens living below the poverty line, the city rates as one of the poorest on earth. Make no bones about it, it's a humanitarian crisis that really doesn't garner much media attention at all. With unemployment at an all time high and with a vast majority of the city still to be cleaned and repaired after the events of 2010, many locals have turned their hand to art to try and eke out a living. And damn, these dudes are good!
Whether you're a coffee hag, dance whore, book geek, smoke pig, religious nut or just a straight up drunken buffoon, Port-au-Prince is your city. Don't freak out at the people staring. Get over yourself. They're just curious due to the fact that tourists really don't seem to come here that often. And yes, many men carry machetes in the streets, and again, get over yourself. To those of us immersed in western culture, the machete is a weapon. In Latin American and Caribbean culture, the machete is a survival tool. To carve wood, slice fruit, slash weeds, lean on during a break... whatever. Like anywhere, just be cool, don't be a drunken dick, respect the locals and everything will be just fine.
And you'll rest assured in the knowledge that tomorrow, you're on the next bus to tropical paradise!
Like 90% of Haiti, the coastal towns and beaches to the north were thoroughly devastated by 2010's earthquake. As a result, in 2017, the drive for an almost non-existent tourist dollar is in full swing and the competition to please is nuts. That's good for us, no? Don't forget, Haiti is smack bang in the middle of the Caribbean. God's country. And just a few hours drive to the north of the hustle of Port-au-Prince is the bluer than a sackful of Bette Davis' eyeballs, Chouchou Bay.
Chouchou is the perfect place to disappear to after the insanity of Port-au-Prince -believe me, you'll need it- and the fact that the entire area is surrounded by the lushest mountains you've ever seen and isn't home to a hell of a lot of people, means that god damn, this place is quiet.
Roll a joint.
Then go snorkelling.
Maybe not in that order.
Other than the hammocks of eternal ecstasy, the greatest thing about Chouchou is the diving. Along the west end of the main beach is a very accessible coral reef strewn with formations unlike anything you've ever seen. Or maybe you have, what do I know? But it's good! Real good. And as an added bonus, there is not one resort, fat American with a camera, scammer, grifter or tout to be seen anywhere. Just friendly locals who wanna drink with you and feed you fish. And to this simpleton, that ain't a bad place to be.
Actually, to be culturally correct, it's spelt vodou, but how much cooler does voodoo look in a subheading?
So you're done recovering from the sins of Port-au-Prince and while relaxing by the water is nice, you've grown quite antsy and are recharged into looking for action once more. Right. It's time to get voodoofied!
Vodou is damn interesting, if a little contradictory. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evil associated with the practice. In fact, Haitian Vodou is intrinsically linked and assimilated with Roman Catholicism. Hmmm, I guess that is kind of evil.
There is a supreme leader, an omnipresent mystical force that Vodouisants not only believe in, but worship. Bondye. He has a close assimilation to the Catholic God and as such is used as a vessel for Vodouists to speak through. To become a Vodouist -a Priest or Priestess- one must be chosen by a deceased ancestor to receive the divination from the deities. These practitioners revere death and believe that it is a secure transition to the afterlife. Haitian Vodou services often begin with song and prayer in French followed by a dedication in Haitian Creole to the African and European gods. The conclusion of the service will often end in a transference of blood, animal sacrifice, smoke cleansing and a series of damn creepy chants and liturgies.
Following the 2010 earthquake, many Vodou practitioners were lynched by communities who believed that Vodouists were responsible for the disaster. In 2011, a severe cholera breakout swept the tiny nation and once again many practitioners were lynched in the belief that they had spread the disease as revenge for the treatment the previous year.
But you don't have to worry about all of that.
The Haitian jungle is an incredible place to visit. There are no words. Having travelled extensively through the Amazon, Central American and South East Asian jungles, I'm here to tell you that I ain't never witnessed anything like this before. Littered throughout the jungle, I'm talking everywhere, are statues, artefacts, remnants and symbols of Vodou ritualism and transitions into the afterlife. Seriously. It makes for a damn creepy night hike not only having to contend with falling tarantulas, jaguars, alligators, mosquitos the size of birds and poisonous leaves and vines, but to randomly encounter a clearing of skulls on a stake or a sinister looking carving as well? Sheesh. So cool!
Which jungle to visit is inconsequential. As far as Vodou creepiness goes, they're all the same. But please make sure to enter the jungle with a guide. These areas are impossible for an outsider to navigate and jungle kidnappings have been known to happen. But don't let that put you off. Just be sensible, take a guide, take the bare minimum of valuables with some dummy cash in case things do get a bit rough, and you my friend are good to go.
Look, this article isn't about the best places in Haiti to eat, or a how to guide for travel, restaurants and accomodation. No. This is all about revealing just a small amount of once in a lifetime treats that this wonderful nation has to offer. The people truly are beautiful, kind and extremely giving. They just want to please and see that you have a good time. The food is mind-blowing. Out of this world. You think you've eaten traditional food from the Caribbean? Uh-uh. Try the Haitian cuisine and your taste buds will celebrate in an orgiastic free-for-all. The art, the weather, the ocean, the jungle, the music, the history, the vibe... all a priceless experience that really won't cost you that much.
Spread the word and help out this treasured community. With little progress to show for seven years of toil after the quake, with hundreds of small children dying daily from cholera and other infections, with industry all but at a standstill, Haiti needs us now more than ever.
Please at least consider this unique part of the world for your next vacation. Tell 'em Bondye sent you.