Discovering the real Haiti

Haiti is like nowhere else in the Caribbean, fashioned by revolutionary slaves, vodou worship and artistic flair. Recent times have been tough, but the nation is rising from the rubble

9 mins

The drums were getting louder, a low, pounding rhythm that even seemed to be vibrating the trees. Candles placed in the hollows of the branches flickered, lighting the way in a sepia glow. I followed the shadow of my guide Emmanuel Brignol as we headed deeper into the forest on the trail of a vodou ceremony.

Suddenly there was an explosion of sounds. In front of me a priestess – her body wrapped in a red and yellow dress, her hair cloaked in a vermillion cloth, her arms clasped by bangles – yelled and chanted, her feet kicking up dust as she beat them down on the ground. The drummers banged the skins ferociously. Then one of the dancers took out a can of air freshener.

“What’s that for?” I asked Emmanuel as the priestess raised it and sprayed it skyward, emptying its contents, singing and pulsating violently as she did so. “It’s to call the spirits,” he explained as I fought to hold back a cough caused by the floral-scented cloud. “In the past they might have used potions, blended for a particular purpose, but now it’s easier to use that.”

A modern convenience employed to serve a different purpose: it’s a concept that defines vodou (not the Hollywood-ised voodoo) here in Haiti. The religion was brought over to the Caribbean by slaves from Africa in the late 17th century. They were immediately forbidden from practising it and forced to convert to Catholicism.

But the slaves didn’t give up; instead they hid their spirits in Catholic deities. When their masters saw them praying to the Virgin Mary they were actually praying to Ezili Freda, a vodou lwa (spirit) of love and luxury; making an offering to St Patrick, they were really honouring Damballah, the bringer of health and happiness.

And now here, in the town of Trou-du-Nord on Haiti’s north coast, I had joined thousands of worshippers who had turned out to celebrate St John the Baptist, aka the powerful Ti Jean Dantor – a lwa who, according to Emmanuel, looks after the dead and likes a good drink.

I stood riveted, grasping a half-fallen wooden fence. It would be all too easy to get lost in the moment, to forget myself completely; it was all I could do to stop my feet from pounding the floor in unison with the crowd.


Downtown Port au Prince (Shutterstock)

Odd one out

It was a scene few envisage when picturing the Caribbean – a far cry from the white-sand beaches and cocktails of the brochures. But then Haiti is not really like the rest of the Caribbean. Situated on the west of Hispaniola, the island it shares with the Dominican Republic, Haiti has long been considered by most as the less desirable side of the divide. Plagued by political demonstrations, military coups and a series of kidnappings, and then shaken by a powerful earthquake in 2010 – which killed over 250,000 people – it became something of a no-go save for NGO workers and their security staff.

Years on from the quake, however, and things are changing. Though my flight over from Miami was full of US missionaries and Haitians returning home rather than tourists, and though the airport security guard asked me why on earth I would come here for a holiday, both the government and the locals are preparing themselves for tourism.

Chain hotels are springing up; flights from Latin America are launching, making Haiti a viable add-on to a South or Central American adventure; the diaspora in the USA are beginning to take vacations in the coastal resorts of Côte des Arcadins; and whispers abound of more cruise-ship visits – currently only one boat docks here, and that’s on a local-free private beach. It seems that, from the (now mostly cleared) rubble, a new Haiti is emerging.

Woman selling at market (Shutterstock)

Revolutionary road

This isn’t the first time that a period of tumult has preceded something astounding in Haiti, as I found out in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien. It was here in 1791 that a vodou ceremony – much like the one I experienced in Trou-du-Nord – kick-started the only successful slave revolt in history. “Vodou gave them a cause,” explained former minister of tourism and Cap-Haïtien local Eddy Lubin. “A slave is a biological machine, but vodou gave them something to hold onto – an emotional attachment.”

Fuelled by passion, and helped by their spiritual beliefs, the slaves were successful. By 1804 the colonial French had been wiped out and Haiti became a black-led republic: the first in the world. “Fearful of revenge, the Haitian leader of the north, Henri Christophe, ordered the building of the imposing Citadelle La Ferrière, a fort to protect them from invasion,” explained Eddy.

Arriving at Choiseul, from where a walk or mule ride leads up to the citadelle, I was overrun almost immediately by street vendors offering me everything from hand-carved flutes to strings of brightly coloured beads. Resisting a sale, I was assigned a mule and handler and began ascending the winding slope, the clip-clop of my transport’s hooves reassuring on the cobbled path.

At first, vegetation lined the way, rising high on both sides like green turrets, but soon I spotted the towering walls on top of the mountain, mirage-like against the hazy sky. Cloud broke to reveal ramparts and cannons, intimidating weaponry peeking from every opening. With the fortress standing at over 900m above sea level, you have to wonder how willingly the newly-freed slaves carried the huge stones and other building materials up here.

Citadelle La Ferrière (Shutterstock)

The feared French retaliation never came, and Christophe settled in Sans Souci palace, which he had built beneath the Citadelle’s walls. His reign ended in 1820 (he committed suicide after a coup); in 1842 an earthquake destroyed most of Sans Souci. Drums beat in the distance as I climbed its imposing staircase and viewed its statues and stone regalia. Today it sits, like the citadelle, as a haunting relic of a powerful moment in the past.

Something in the water

From stone forts to sandcastles: next I headed to the far south of Haiti to a small town called Jacmel. When the north of Haiti was ruled by Christophe, the south was the domain of less-tyrannical Alexandre Pétion, and a more laid-back vibe still lingers here. Packed full of artists, musicians and beachside properties, Jacmel is less built up and distinctly more Caribbean in feel.

Before exploring the town proper I stopped at the small village of Grand Fond, from where my guides led me to a natural feature called Bassin Bleu. Sweat dripped off my forehead as I made my way through the canopy, the humidity rising with the thickness of the greenery. At the first of the three waterfalls that tumble into the gorge here, local women sat washing clothes and conversing loudly in Creole, its French intonations sounding almost song-like. I tiptoed across stepping-stones and soon reached the second cascade, where a cerulean lake was churned by a metre-high tumble of water.

By now I was fighting the urge to leap in – and I wouldn’t have to wait long. After another scramble down some rocks, the only way to reach the third drop was by swimming. I needed little persuasion, but yelped at the coolness as I plunged in up to my neck. However, if that took my breath away, it was as nothing compared to seeing the final cascade. The pool was edged by vertical cliffs and craggy boulders, and I watched as my guides climbed up the sides and backflipped flamboyantly, their splashes echoing off the gorge walls.

Island Cove, Haiti (Shutterstock)

Island Cove, Haiti (Shutterstock)

Refreshed, I arrived in town, where I was greeted by a woman who called herself Madame Jacmel. She was a stylish older lady; with her hair neatly scraped back, ringlets framing her face, earrings dangling and a pale-blue scarf tied to one side, she looked like she might break into a salsa at any minute. Her English was limited, so we tried to converse in broken French. She showed me some papier-mâché heads from last year’s carnival – a Haitian take on Mardi Gras, with vodou influences – and faces painted on the shells of calabash fruits.

As I meandered around the streets, I found similarly brightly coloured items everywhere. Vendors arranged their wares on the pavement: flower-coated cockerels, lion faces, globes, models of tap taps (Haiti’s vibrant buses), all made from wood, metal and coconut husks. Near the promenade two teenage boys were busy adding layers of glue to their papier-mâché structures. And across the road from the charming Hotel Florita, I found the donation-funded FOSAJ Gallery, which has an art school that teaches the next generation traditional Haitian styles – either full of colour, or a mix of dolls, bent cutlery and sequins, nodding to vodou motifs. In this town art is not just a job but a passion.

“Maybe it’s something in the water,” laughed Ronald Mevs when I asked what made Jacmel such a hub for handicrafts. An artist with a studio just outside the town, Ronald thought for a moment before adding: “Perhaps because the environment is pleasant – there’s lots of green space and the light is good.” I looked at one of his paintings, a fusion of reds and blacks, with bird-like shapes emerging through the chaos as though a palimpsest. Downstairs his workshop looked like a salvage yard, filled with scrap wood, metal and plastic. One of his paintings had been created on what looked like an old sheet. “Sometimes I don’t have canvas,” he explained, “so I paint on whatever I can find.”

New hope

Back in Port-au-Prince, such creativity and resourcefulness were just as prevalent. I journeyed to the suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets in the north-west, near the fields of sugar cane that still supply the local Barbancourt Rhum distillery. The unmistakeable chink-chink of hammers hitting metal resonated as I began to explore the network of more than 20 workshops here. Sculptors use scrap steel drums to fashion elaborately intricate wall ornaments called fer découpé. Using a chisel they cut out the shapes of vodou lwa, hearts, trees, birds and suns; one artist called Eugene Jaques, aka Mr Rasta, also sources old cooking utensils and bends wire rods to create large freestanding installations.

In downtown Port-au-Prince, amid the beeping horns of always gridlocked traffic, the theme continued. On the Grand Rue artists create sculptures using anything and everything they can find – from old TVs to car bumpers and broken keyboards. As I passed this thronging scene, women walked by selling peanut brittle, balancing huge and varied loads on their heads.

I was driving through the capital to reach the eastern mountains in Kenscoff, where I was meeting environmentalist Jane Wynne at the Wynne Farm Ecological Reserve. Thanks to USAID funding, the reserve has established programmes to try to encourage locals to employ more sustainable ways of farming. “My father established this in 1956,” Jane explained. “We just want to make people realise that they can work the land and still look after it.”


Colourful houses of Port au Prince (Shutterstock)

As well as educating Haitians about working practices, she uses her land to grow trees and reintroduce native species of plants and flowers, some of which she pointed out as we strolled around. “We try to get school groups in here to help the children reconnect with nature and learn about pollution and how important green space is to Haiti,” said Jane.

From her house she sells handbags made of recycled plastic – the product of showing local youths how rubbish can be recycled or reused. “I can’t change things overnight,” she admitted, “but I will keep trying all my life, and my daughter will after me too.”

I left Jane to return to the clogged streets of Port-au-Prince. Looking out of the bus window I smiled when I noticed the occasional red flamboyant tree breaking through the stacks of concrete. In the aftermath of such a catastrophic earthquake it would be all too easy (and understandable) to neglect environmental issues, but I spotted further signs of change. The capital’s Iron Market, with its stalls selling art, Cuban cigars, vodou paraphernalia and groceries, was rebuilt with the addition of solar panels. And at the Barbancourt distillery – one of the oldest companies in Haiti – leftover sugar cane is burned to produce electricity rather than just left to rot.

As Jean Bernard, a hotelier in Cap-Haïtien, had said to me earlier: “Hollywood put their spin on vodou and now it’s time they put their spin on Haiti. After the earthquake has come new hope, and possibilities are only just beginning.” On my last night, I raised a glass of Barbancourt to that sentiment at the Hotel Oloffsson. RAM, the local vodou rock band, was beginning to play, and the drums were getting louder. This time I didn’t fight it; I let my feet move to the intoxicating beat.

Mountains in Haiti (Shutterstock)

Mountains in Haiti (Shutterstock)

Plan your trip to Haiti

American Airlines flies to Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien daily from Miami (2hrs) and New York (4hrs). Flights from London to Miami take ten hours. You can fly to Haiti from the Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo or Punta Cana) and Panama with other airlines.

You can rent a car, or a car and driver, but the price is high and conditions difficult. The roads are often unpaved and potholed and other drivers are fast and erratic. Other options are publiques (taxis); these can be hired privately (always agree the fee before departure) or shared (other passengers will be picked up on route). Moto-taxis are readily available but you won’t be given a helmet and your driver will drive fast. Tap taps, the brightly decorated buses and pick-ups, are cheap but hot, often crammed full and slow.

For more comfort, try companies such as Voyages Lumière and Agence Citadelle, which can organise private, air-conditioned vehicles as well as offering excursions and tours throughout Haiti. Sunrise Airways flies daily between Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince. Undiscovered Destinations offer tours to Haiti.

Please note: This article was first published in Wanderlust Magazine in 2015

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