Haiti: land of the free

Emma Thomson – Financial Times.

Long beset by corruption, colonial rule and natural disasters, the nation is at last beginning to attract adventurous travelers

Trekking across the Haiti’s Central Plateau

We were pacing along a russet mud track when a Creole call went up: “Gade! Blan yo se sou pye!” (“Look! The whites are on foot!”) A gaggle of kids appeared from behind a fence of cacti, pointing at us in delight and slapping each other on the back as laughs erupted from between their bright-white teeth.

For nearly two weeks I had been exploring Haiti, ticking off what are emerging as the must-see sites for the trickle of adventurous tourists beginning to travel to the country. I sought out voodoo flags and dolls inside Port-au-Prince’s central market, the Marché en Fer. I wandered among the faded French colonial architecture of Jacmel on the southern coast and was led on horseback up to the Unesco-listed Citadelle Laferrière, a colossal mountain-top fortress completed in 1820.

But still, it had felt like I was being kept at arm’s length, isolated in the cocoon of a tour group. So I had joined a trek run by Expedition Ayiti — a grass-roots organisation that leads hikes through the little-visited Central Plateau and the mountains of the south, which rise to 2,680m. And the chuckles of these children seemed proof that the barrier was finally being lowered.

It’s easy to understand why smiles aren’t as easily offered in the main towns. While the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola, has developed a thriving tourist economy, Haiti, on the western side of the same island, has been beset by poverty, political corruption and natural disasters. Haiti was a French colony for almost 200 years, with plantations staffed by slaves shipped from Africa. Following the French Revolution, they overthrew the colonists and won independence in 1804 in the most important slave rebellion in history.

France, however, refused to recognise Haiti’s independence and sought reparations for the loss of its land, a demand delivered by a fleet of warships. Fearing attack, Haiti agreed to pay Fr150m, which left the new nation laden with huge debts. The corrupt rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, president from 1957 to 1971, and that of his son Jean-Claude, emptied the public purse further. Then, on January 12 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck at Léogâne — 25 miles from Port-au-Prince — reducing the capital to rubble, claiming about 200,000 lives and leaving an estimated 1.5m displaced.

Austin Taylor, a teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana, was in Haiti at the time, about to depart on a motorbike tour of the country. He abandoned his plans and spent the next 11 days volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, the US-based housing NGO. “Lots of foreigners headed to Haiti to volunteer after the earthquake, but from what I saw it seemed what Haitians needed most in the long term was the chance to earn money,” he says. Unsure what to do, he came to live for five weeks with Gerald Joseph, a school principal from the town of Pignon in Haiti’s Central Plateau who had also been working with the NGO. “At that point every visitor to Haiti was involved in aid work. They stayed in compounds and didn’t experience the culture like I could during those five weeks.” Believing Haiti had a landscape and culture that could be ideal for adventurous, community-based tourism, Taylor and Joseph devised a plan for a trekking company, using the lattice of footpaths that wind between villages. It would create jobs for local guides, and the hikers would stay in villagers’ homes along the way. Expedition Ayiti took its first guests in 2012 but remains tiny, with only 30 guests so far booked for this year.

On the first morning of our hike we rose early, pulled on our boots and set off west from Pignon. We passed the town’s rum factory, an open-sided tin-roof shack where locals bring their sugar cane to boil down into alcohol. The sweet smell of molasses hung in the air.

©GettyThe Citadelle Laferrière, a Unesco world heritage site

After 12 miles — four or five hours’ walking — we reached our first night’s stop, the village of Lamarre. The local pastor, Hones Declerus, greeted Taylor warmly: “How is your father? Mother?”

School had just broken up for the Christmas holidays and — wishing to give us more space than there would be in his home — Declerus had set up a camp bed in each of the classrooms. French posters of the skeletal and digestive systems hung above my mattress. Moths and flies smashed into the battery-operated light placed on the table as we settled down to a dinner of rice and beans. In between mouthfuls I asked Declerus how the village deals with the money received from Expedition Ayiti — $45 per tourist per night. “We put it all in a shared bank account and grow it,” he said. “Right now, we’re saving to buy 25 goats.”

The following day was shorter — a six-mile hike to Gran Latanier and the marine-blue house of our host, Lormeus Clotère. His plastic dining table groaned under a spread of boiled plantain, chicken legs and pikliz (a spicy coleslaw). We spent the afternoon learning to play dominoes (a Haitian obsession) and watching Clotère’s nieces take turns braiding each other’s hair.

Nieces of Lormeus Clotère braiding hair in Gran Latanier

On the last day, we had barely walked two miles when we were met by Charles Gerbeir, a 60-year-old father of eight and our final host. He’d risen at 4am and walked 12 miles so he could accompany us over the mountains to his village, Ran. We followed him through head-height flaxen grasses, paused on the cusp of the mountain to enjoy the cool wind, sweet as iced water, then descended to his cement house, which stands in the shadow of a red Digicel telecommunications tower. He takes care of the compound in return for a small wage, but survives mostly on his garden, which is filled with crops and pigs. “I’m always happy to share my house,” he told us.

Early the next morning, we hitched rides on the back of motorbikes towards Pignon and then hailed a tap tap (a shared taxi), bound for Cap-Haïtien. Chickens dangled by their ankles from the side, the ground was visible through the floor of the vehicle, farmers and villagers were shoehorned in. We all watched silently as the Citadelle flashed in and out of view, partially obscured by palm trees. The last time I’d seen it was from an air-conditioned minibus, but I knew that this — hot, cramped, authentic — was the experience I’d remember.


Emma Thomson was a guest of Expedition Ayiti (expeditionayiti.org), which offers a seven-day hike through the interior from $1,300 per person, including accommodation, meals, transport and a guide. American Airlines (aa.com) operates a direct flight from Miami to Cap-Haïtien from about $400 return.

Photograph: Getty


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