When my husband comes into view, I am looking at the green mountains of northern Haiti. The lush backdrop around the coastal city of Cap Haïtien is a welcome surprise. You read so much in the news about the serious deforestation in Haiti, especially around the capital of Port-au-Prince in the center of the country.
Like the rest of our group of six travelers, David is a passenger on a small motorcycle, or moto. We quickly arranged this fleet of moto rides some miles back. He checks in with me through mutual nods, and then his driver pulls their small moto ahead of the one on which I ride.
I hope my smile tells him how happy I am at this moment. I hope my smile is as wide and peaceful as those of our friends Janis and Lois as they each passed me earlier on this joy ride. We’re all perched on the back of these motos with our collection of luggage, which includes five backpacks and a large duffel, plus our smaller daypacks.
Lois’ husband Paul also carries the colorful environmentally-friendly shopping bag in which Lois had put some pretty painted metal pieces she and I bought earlier. The wind ripples the bag. It’s like a merry pirate flag for our group, los refugiados, the refugees, as we will later dub ourselves.
Much of this trip is made on open road. There’s little traffic beyond our band of six blans riding on the back of motos under the control of local drivers. Blan is the word for both white and foreigner in Kreyòl, or Creole, the primary language of Haiti. Blans are a common sight in these parts, but more often seen traveling inside SUVs paid for by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or the United Nations, which has had a militia of sorts in Haiti since 2004. Or, it may be more accurate to say an army of foreigners. Chileans and Nepalis are among those who have served.
We look a little odd, a pack of blans balancing our luggage on small motorcycles shared with our drivers. From time to time, we pass school children who stare. I wave to a group of girls, who are decked out with the exquisite braids and wearing school uniforms.
We are nearing the end of our stay in northern Haiti, with three nights spent in the centuries-old city of Cap Haïtien. The November day is warm. The sky is a perfect mix of blue with some white clouds. The sun feels good on my face, which I usually hide from its rays behind a big hat. I look in vain to see if I can spot up in those green mountains one of the world’s most amazing places, the Citadelle Laferrière.
Constructed not long after Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804, this mountaintop fortress evokes the same wonder and the same questions in visitors as does Peru’s Machu Picchu. How on earth did people build this massive stone structure on a tall mountain, with only people and a few beasts to haul the materials? Citadelle Laferrière was the vision of Henri Christophe, a man born a slave who was a leader in the Haitian Revolution and later declared himself a king. It’s a story that seems perfect for an HBO miniseries in the style of the John Adams biography, but frankly with more drama to it.
The motor bike carrying Janis’ husband Rich pulls up next to mine. He and Janis are two of my oldest friends. ¨The next time you ask us to go on vacation, I am going to need to think hard on that,¨ Rich says.
We both laugh. We know immediately that this is a story we will be repeating for many years.
Because some miles now to the east of us, a stack of tires burns in the Haitian town of Ouanaminthe, near the border of the Dominican Republic. Or so we have heard. We never got close enough to the site of the protests in Ouanaminthe, pronounced Wana-meenth, to see that for ourselves. We only saw a tall plume of black smoke rising high into the sky from a distance.
Some miles away from us now to the east, angry people keep the road closed off with tree branches. They gather ready to protest what we hear are several injustices. The access to electricity is intermittent. Dominicans who cross the border to sell goods are said to get unfair privileges. On this November afternoon, there is no obvious sign of a police presence responding to the citizens’ decision to close off a section of a main east-west road on Haiti’s north coast. The government seems to have no immediate plan that afternoon to do much more than try to let this protest sputter on its own.
Some miles away from us now to the east of us, there are shards of broken glass on the road. A bottle was shattered in a bit of theater, a negotiation tactic. It was a move meant to speed up our realization that, yes, we blans did need to pay for moto rides to carry us west away from the closed section road. We needed to do so without any further debate among ourselves. That broken bottle said that we were not getting through the blocked road to make our way east to the Dominican Republic, no matter how much we wanted to move on that day in our trip.
The street theater stepped up a notch. Some things are thrown in our vicinity before our group agreed to leave with the moto drivers. My arm will ache a bit for hours from a hit it took from either a rock or maybe a stick. I don’t know which. My eyes were closed when it happened.
¨Allez, allez, allez (go, go, go),,” I whispered in my terrible French to the driver of my moto, as someone in the crowd plucked my hat off my head.
Six Dumb Blans
Trust me that the fault was ours for getting anywhere near that mess on the road to Ounanaminthe. It took quite a bit of stubbornness and determination to move ourselves away from the peace and safety of Cap Haïtien. It took work. It took moxie. It required the ¨don’t take no for an answer¨ attitude of our group, five of whom have roots in New York. The sixth is a Nebraska native who has lived in Washington, D.C. for more than 20 years. His impatience is such that he could never be successfully repatriated back to Omaha.
We six dumb blans not only in effect went looking for trouble, but had to contract private transportation for our search.
Protests near Ouanaminthe had stopped the regular Caribe Tours bus service between Cap Haïtien and cities in Haiti’s neighboring country, the Dominican Republic. To head to Ouanaminthe to try to cross the border, our group rented an entire taptap, as Haitians call the converted pickup trucks used as the backbone of local transportation. Long benches line each side of the truck bed. People jump on and off along normal tap tap routes, sharing those bench seats or catch a ride by standing on the back bumper. Our rented taptap had dropped us off near the protest at our request. We had figured we would arrange new transport once we crossed through the road closure and protest on foot.
Up until that point, our time in Haiti had been a series of pleasant discoveries. For roughly $150 a night, you can rent a room at one of the hotels in the hills above Cap Haïtien and enjoy a broad view of the harbor below. We stayed at both Habitation Jouissant and Mont Joli during our short stay in that city, and spent many hours lolling around in their well-kept pools.
The food in Cap Haïtien was far better than we expected. Conch, called lambi, and other fish dishes were served with peppery sauces at lively open-air restaurants.
But, it’s the architecture in Cap Haïtien that gets the imagination going. It’s a gem in the rough, with many one-story buildings that bring to mind the French Quarter of New Orleans. There are a few grander buildings scattered here and there, including an old-fashioned public market made of iron.
Converting a few of the older buildings into restaurants might be enough to spark some bigger changes for this city. Maybe a small touristy section could draw a stream of visitors from the cruise ships that stop at the private beach at Labadee on Haiti’s north coast. That’s what you find yourself thinking as you walk the streets of this city.
Haitian leaders are trying to bring visitors and their cash to the country. The national tourism ministry in February 2015 announced a television campaign intended to attract members of the Haitian community living in greater New York and others in the region to visit. And, American Airlines in October 2014 began flying a new route, the first major carrier to connect Miami and Cap Haïtien. Haiti’s President Michel Martelly was a passenger on the inaugural flight. On Oct. 2, the nation’s No.2 official, its prime minister Laurent Lamothe tweeted ¨Cap Haitien welcomes American Airlines.¨ Lamothe is an ally of former United States President Bill Clinton, who long has been an advocate for Haiti. The forty-something Lamothe also was quoted in an American Airlines press release announcing these new flights between Cap Haïtien and Miami. Lamothe called them ¨a tremendous opportunity for significant economic impact.¨
There have been signs of progress. The receipts from international tourism for Haiti rose to $568 million in 2013 from $162 million in 2011, according to the World Bank. But, Haiti still badly lags the neighboring Dominican Republic, with which it shares an island. The Dominican Republic had receipts from international tourism of $5.07 billion in 2013. The World Bank estimates that about 295,000 tourists traveled to Haiti in 2012, while almost 4.6 million visited its eastern neighbor, known for its package trips to beach resorts.
In an interview with the Caribbean Journal, Lamothe said Haiti’s ¨ potential of tourism is untapped, particularly our cultural tourism.¨ That certainly seemed true on our visit.
We flew on American Airlines to Cap Haïtien in November 2014, a month after the connection with Miami began running. The people waiting in line with us for passport stamps at the small Cap Haïtien airport fell mostly into two categories. There were Haitians returning home with large suitcases, and people from the United States traveling in volunteer groups. Many of them wore matching t-shirts about their “missions” to Haiti, usually featuring with a quote from Scripture.
There was not a Bible to be found among the possessions of our group of six independent travelers. But, mixed in among summer dresses and bottles of sunscreen and hiking sandals was a paperback copy of C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, an excellent and edgy history on the Haitian revolution and its aftermath.
In this book, James tells of a French bourgeoisie made incredibly wealthy from the suffering of slaves in Haiti in the 18th century. He writes that some French families were rich enough to have their linens shipped across the ocean to that colony ¨to be washed, and to get the right colour and scent.¨ Their wine would make ¨two or three voyages… to give it the right flavour.¨ The historian also cataloged some of the tortures inflicted to keep the slave population working long days in the baking hot fields. Some slaves were buried alive. Others covered with boiling sugar cane. In their daily lives, the slaves ¨received the whip with more certainty and regularity than they received their food,” James writes.
Half of our group had already read The Black Jacobins, which did more perhaps than any other book to bring the nearly incredible story of Touissant L’Overture to an English-speaking audience. His story remains too little known in our time.
A clever man who rose from slavery, L’Overture turned out to have surprising military skill that set the stage for the first nation created by slaves. His work helped the slaves defeat their local masters, and then ward off attempts by France to regain control of land whose sugar had made many across the Atlantic quite rich as nearly unimaginable human costs.
Toussaint’s life seems like that of Nelson Mandela or George Washington, a case of one person who truly may have made changed the course of history in his nation. And, in the case of Touissant, the mark he left on Haiti also influenced the growth of the United States.
Yes, the mosquito also gets some credit, as yellow fever took a harsh toll on French troops that fought to recapture control of what had been the prosperous colony of Saint-Domingue, as the French called Haiti. Without the unexpected skill of Touissant and his generals, though, the French might have bided their bid and sought to reclaim the profitable colony. Instead, the resounding French defeat in Haiti was one of the main drivers in Napoleon’s decision to sell the United States the land that became the Louisiana purchase, about doubling the size of the young nation. Touissant’s victories ended up in short order as Thomas Jefferson’s big win.
Touissant also had talented generals who succeeded him after he was compelled in 1802 to go to France where he died in a cell, of neglect and cold. His immediate successor was Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who would declare himself to be Haiti’s first emperor around 1804. His reign was decidedly short. After he was assassinated in 1806, control of the nation split. More cultured Paris-educated Alexandre Pétion ruled in the south, where ambitious Christophe claimed the north.
The life story of Henri Christophe inspired writers well into the 20th century. Playwrights Derek Walcott and Eugene O’Neil have used him as a subject. In the novel ¨The Kingdom of This World (1949),¨ Cuban author Alejo Carpentier created a fictional one-time slave named Ti Noel to serve as witness to both the Haitian Revolution and the story of Henri Christophe. Christophe rose from being a hotel worker to general to president and then king. He also was the founder of the Citadelle Laferrière, the massive mountaintop fort that had drawn us to visit Haiti.
In the words of Carpentier (1904-1980), Henri Christophe was a monarch of incredible will, one who surpassed the cruelest kings invented by any member of the Surrealist movement would later dream up in the 20th century. Carpentier was a leader in the promotion of the idea of the real-maravilloso, a world in which there are echoes of spirits and ancestors and the cosmos in a drum’s beat, in the call of certain birds heard in the Americas.
Tweaked to be magical-realism, this embrace of a more generous view of the possibilities of the world helped shape some of the most revered works of the 20th century Gabriel García Márquez was among the writers influenced by Carpentier.
Into the Clouds
It was Sunday when we made our way from Cap Haïtien to the the Citadelle Laferrière. Before our trip, members of our group had spent hours online looking for a guided tour to this site. But, once we got to Cap Haïtien, it was clear we didn’t need one.
Northern Haiti was far more manageable than we had thought it would be. We caught rides in crowded shared taps taps to travel about 12 miles from Cap Haïtien to Milot, the town at the foot of the ruins of Christophe’s palace, called Sans Souci.
The tap tap routes were busy with people heading to church services. At one point, I sat next to a man in his 20s dressed in a suit, holding his Bible. He was to speak in his church that day, he told me. We talked of how the green the trees were, about all I could cover with what remains of my college French over the noise in the crowded tap-tap.
Once we arrived in Milot, we again found Haiti to be easier to negotiate than we had expected. There had been reports of aggressive salesmanship along the steep roughly seven-kilometer climb from Christophe’s palace to his fort. At home, we had discussed whether it would be worth hiring a guide simply to help us fend off these offers.
But, the people trying to sell services on the road to the Citadelle turned out to be pretty mellow, with only a few men persisting with sales pitches for horses for hire on the trail. If you have ever fended off offers for a camel ride near the Great Pyramid in Giza or a rickshaw in coastal Vietnam or the unsolicited hotel recommendations from a taxi driver in pretty much any poor country, you wouldn’t be bothered by the entrepreneurs of Milot.
Their offers did start coming thickly at the grounds of the ruins of Sans Souci, the palace on the outskirts of Milot. It serves as the start of the long trail up the mountain to the Citadelle. But, they trickled off fast once we were done exploring there.
Sans Souci was considered the Versailles of the Caribbean when Henri Christophe first built it. Only a few some walls remain of what once were grand buildings. A damage statue of a muse is propped near the entrance.
The one-time hotelier now turned monarch, Christophe has sought to quickly build a nobility and court for himself. He even had printing presses set up. At home in Washington, I would later find in the Library of Congress what appears to be one of the books printed there. While the emperor had an Anglophilic streak and dubbed himself Henry Christopher, use of French persisted in his court. The book is dated to 1811 and titled “Relation des glorieux événemens qui ont porté Leurs Majestés Royales sur le trône d’Hayti; suivi de l’histoire du couronnement et du sacre du roi Henry 1er, et de la reine Marie-Louise.¨
The book describes the elaborate dress code for members of different ranks. Pour les princes et ducs, a white tunic that falls to the knee. Shoes of red leather. A hat with five red and black feathers. Pour les comtes, only three red feathers, pour les barons, two white ones. I have checked this book out a few times. Touching its pages printed on heavy stock makes me feel connected again to our day among the ruins of Christophe’s kingdom.
Leaving San Souci, the climb to the Citadelle is tough, but worth it. The green landscape of northern Haiti reveals itself to travelers on the path. Our group scattered walking up the long trail. I spent a few minutes with two different guides on my slow walk up the hill. French is a second language for most Haitians, with the national language of Kreyol or Creole serving as the first. These were young kids who were trying to practice their French, a little English. They told me the same things that I had already read in guide books about the Citadelle. I gave them $5 each after we quickly exhausted my French and explained that I wanted to walk alone. I was embarrassed about my slow pace and flushed and sweaty appearance. I was sure that my face had turned a fluorescent red-pink that usually is only seen in Easter eggs dyed by children using inexpensive home coloring kits. Unsupervised children, at that.
Up and up we all went into the green hills. When the Citadelle came into view, although still from a distance, it was a thrill. And, then it disappeared into a sudden cloud cover. While that frustrated my husband who is an avid photographer, it made the Citadelle Laferrière more magic for me. It was like something from a fairy tale, a mountaintop fortress suddenly gone from sight.
A short walk later we finally entered the Citadelle, built of stone said to be held together by mortar strengthened with cattle blood. One can spot the sea from this mountain fortress, where ornate cannons taken from European troops remain in place. The plan of the fortress is irregular, giving different views from different angles. Henri Christophe had it built out of fear that the French would try to retake Haiti. I regretted not having hired a real guide on my visit, as I had — and still have– questions about each room of the fortress. And, there were no guidebooks sold on the site.
In fact, there was no tourist schlock at all. There were no t-shirts, no glossy guide books, no videos, no refrigerator magnets. We couldn’t find a postcard of the Citadelle, not at the site or anywhere in Cap Haïtien. It’s possible that they are sold somewhere, but we looked at every store and every hotel front desk and did not find them.
A small refreshment stand about midway up the trail to the Citadelle had packaged cold drinks on offer. Women approached our group on the road there to try to sell pretty necklaces and bracelets, seemingly made of seeds and string. Imagine if those were marketed as artisan crafts of natural materials.were no postcards to be found showing the Citadelle Laferrière.
Lamothe, the prime minister who saw Haiti’s history as an untapped resource for tourism, has posted on his YouTube channel a video about a plan to illuminate the Citadelle. It reminds me on the light show at Giza. Such a spectacle at the Citadelle Laferrière seems a grand scheme for a place where there is so little tourism. On the other hand, it seems odd that such a magnificent site is so quiet.
Having seen the Citadelle, we were ready to head onto the Dominican Republic. We had had no hassles in Cap Haïtien beyond a little dispute in which one hotel didn’t seem to understand that prices for rooms booked online couldn’t be renegotiated. The city is a pleasant place to visit, even if it’s scruffy in parts.
We debated a bit among ourselves whether our hillside hotels were a better choice that the Hotel du Roi Christophe in the center of town. We had dinner at the Hotel du Roi Sunday night. We then camped out on its agreeable veranda on Monday to try figure out a way out of Haiti when we learned of the protests that closed the road to Ounaminthe.
The hotel grounds are filled with tropical plants. Polished dark wooden furniture is set clean black-and-white tiled floors. It had a definite Graham Green vibe for those of us who are fans of that British novelist, known best for his works that put Europeans and Americans in the midst of troubles erupting in poor countries like Haiti and Vietnam in the mid 20th century.
Vietnam today is a far richer place from the one depicted in Greene’s 1955 ¨The Quiet American,¨ a novel that sets the stage for the war that would erupt in that nation. That nation has pulled itself into a boom of growth and prosperity, and Americans now see Vietnam as one of the safer spots for travel. About 89 percent of Vietnamese children complete at least five years of primary education, and of these, more than 90 percent continue to secondary education, according to a report from ChildFund International. UNICEF has said only four in 10 children in Haiti went to school before the 2010 earthquake, which disrupted public services there.
Haiti no longer suffers from the dictatorship of Doc Duvalier that Greene described in his 1966 book, ¨The Comedians.¨ But, it’s a country that has never in its history known long periods of sustained peaceful political stability or broad economic growth. Christophe’s rule ended abruptly in 1820. While facing a threatened invasion from a rival ruler based to the south in Haiti, Christophe suffered a stroke. He then shot himself at San Souci and his body was lugged up the mountain trail, said to be buried in the walls of his fortress.
Lamothe, the prime minister with the grand visions for tourism, would lose his post in a December political shakeup. The brief biographical sketch for his Twitter account says that he was the longest tenured prime minister for Haiti, having stayed in the job from May 2012 to December 2014. He made a failed attempt to run for president in 2015. The nation still is struggling to put in place a permanent successor to its last president, Michel Martelly, who left office in February 2016. An interim leader was put in place and there were plans for an April election. But, Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald has reported the doubts and concerns emerging about that plan.
Let’s hope that the next leader elected brings some stability to Haiti, which I hope to visit again soon. Our first trip ended by taking those moto rides away from the protest site directly to the Cap Haïtien airport. There we found that there were six seats on a small plane leaving within the hour for the Haitian capital of Port au Prince, and a connection into Santo Domingo. It was a great bit of luck for us. As it turned out, the road we had hoped to take from Haiti into the Dominican Republic was to stay closed for many days amid protests.
Still, I both fear and hope that there may not be much more time to enjoy the Citadelle as I would like to do on my second visit. I want to spend more quiet hours on the site, but this time with a guide who knows the history in depth who can explain to me the stories of how this fortress was built.
If there is any justice, the spate of recent stories on northern Haiti such as this Conde Nast Traveler piece will pay off with more tourism. For Haiti’s sake, I hope there will one day be too much commerce for my taste on the path to the Citadelle. Let there be swarms of tourists and DVDs on offer in French, English and even Japanese. Let there be guides wearing copies of the tall 18th century-style hats in which Toussaint and Henri Christophe are often depicted. Let there be stores with t-shirts of the Citadelle and knockoff copies of the garb dictated for the different ranks in the court of Henri Christophe.
If you have a romantic spirit and a love for wandering on the footpaths of history, you should get to the Citadelle sooner rather than later. Visit while you may still have a shot of having one of the world’s most splendid places to yourself for a few hours.
“Allez, allez, allez, (go,go,go)” I tell you.
Things read –and reread– on Haiti while researching this article
Alvarez, Julia. Una Boda en Haiti. 2013.
Anderson, Jon Lee. New Yorker. “Haiti Has a President.“ Feb. 17, 2016
Carpentier, Alejo. El reino de este mundo. 1949
Charles, Jacqueline of the Miami Herald. Too many articles to list Follow her at @jacquiecharles for more on Haiti.
Danticat, Edwidge. Claire of the Sea Light. 2013.
James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 1938.
Oswald, Ted. Because We Are: A Libète Limyè Mystery. 2012.
Taft-Morales, Maureen. Congressional Research Service. “Haiti Under President Martelly: Current Conditions and Congressional Concerns.” 2015
Walcott, Derek. “Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes,” The Haitian Trilogy.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. “¿Lo real maravilloso o artimañas literarias?” Letras Libres. January 2000.
Wilentz, Amy. Farewell, Fred Vodoo: A Letter from Haiti. 2013.