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dannygoesdiving This is a blog & photo journal of the trips that I (Danny) and Jo (wifey) have taken over the past few years.

Misconceptions about Haiti

HAITI | Saturday, 2 May 2015 | Views [1204]

The Citadel

The Citadel

The media never say anything positive about Haiti, its mostly shown on television for political turmoil, violence, poverty or natural disasters. Haiti is portrayed as a country that is slum filled, dirty, ugly, devoid of vegetation (deforrestation from charcoal production), a place with no activities and a place purely of hardships.

This was my view of Haiti, reinforced by it being one of our closest neighbours (307 kms/190 miles apart) and both hearing reports in our media of the regular interceptions/landings of overfilled sloops (small masted sailboat) bearing Haitian men, women and children all hoping for a better in the Turks and Caicos.

Then I saw a picture in a magazine of an impressive looking citadelle surrounded by beautiful green mountain ranges, only to find out it was in Haiti. A little research and suprise, suprise, what the media portrayed was not the complete picture, there are beautiful parts of Haiti and precious treasures if you care to look beyond the stereotype.

This wetted my appetite to see Haiti for myself, and was made easier though Josies friendship with the owners of 'Caicu Naniki' (www.caicunaniki.com) an adventure/activities company who amongst other things offer a 3 day/2 night Northern Haiti tour.  We worked out some dates and left the rest to Ben.

A short 55 minute flight saw us leave the Turks and Caicos (voted the No. 1 travellers choice island in the world by tripadvisor) and arrive in Cap-Haitian (not on many peoples radar as a tourist destination). 

We met Dominique (one of our 2 guides) once through customs, exiting the airport we were immediately assulted by an array of sights, sounds and smells, however, before we could take it all in we were ushered into a car where we met Jenny (our second guide). To say the roads were chaotic was an understatement and then some, it took us almost 40 minutes to travel less than 2 miles, but what an eye opening and inspiring 40 minutes it turned out to be !  The roads were packed with all manner of vehicles - 'chicken buses' (similar to those in Central America), brightly colured 'jitneys' (trucks with converted covered beds), trucks, UN vehicles, cars, motorcylces galore (many driving on the pavements), push bikes and pedestrians. - all of which were overtaking, undertaking and jostling for position. On our right hand side was the Atlantic Ocean - serene with a number of brightly coloured sloops fishing in the waters, the land between us and the water was a narrow wasteland littered with rubbish and refuse, all of which was being sifted through by people and animals alike (pigs and goats mainly). There were hugh mounds of plastics (all for recycling) and burning tyres (for extracting the wire); nothing seemed to be going to waste. On our left hand side were a constant line of buildings, a mixture of yards, shops, residential buildings and compounds (UN buildings complete with watch towers). What was most memorable though was the industry taking place infront of the buildings. There were stalls and roadside workshops galore - tyre repairs, food stands, secondhand clothes and furniture for sale, blocks of ice kept cool under wood chips (broken down and sold in pieces) and roadside laundry to name but a few - I don't think there was a service or product not available - all a credit to the ingenious and resourceful people of this country. I could honestly have spent all day just taking in these sights. It was both awe inspiring and depressing at the same time, especially when passing over the rivers as you could look back further inland to the shanty towns lining the trash choked waters, complete with kids swimming in the polluted waters.  

Leaving the outskirts we entered Cap-Haitien itself. The architecture was strikingly different, domintated by old colonial buildings reminisent of parts of New Orleans, heading for the Place D'Armes we saw the Cathedral before heading back to the coast to have lunch at the evidently popular Lakay restaurant, which dished up refreshing local juices and tasty creole food (in my case Creole goat).

We made a quick stop off at the craft market, which had a wide variety of paintings, crafted metalwork and carved woodwork and most pleasantly none too pushy vendors. I ended up buying a wooden globe of the world, hand painted with the continents and with the countries all written on in pen - it certainy felt like a unique souvenier.

It was time to unwind so we headed a short distance to our hotel - Roi Christophe, a charming colonial hotel set in well maintained gardens, yet located right in the heart of Cap-Haitien. In most parts of the world it would have seemed charming but dated and in need of updating, here though it seemed opulent and out of place within the surrounding neighbourhood. Our room was clean and comfortable, a mixture of the old and the new. The old comprised of dark colonial furniture, thick wooden window shutters and heavy wooden double doors that opened out onto a large balcony (overlooking the gardens). The new was air conditioning and cable tv on a flatscreen tv.  There was a welcoming flask of chilled water which was always topped up on our return.

A busy work schedue back home was starting to take its toll - we were here to unwind as well as see the Citadelle so slept the afternoon away, waking in late afternoon we took a dip in the pool before heading to the hotel restaurant. A couple of local Haitien beers (Prestige) and some traditional Haitien fried pork with rice and we were ready to call it a night.

A great nights sleep aided by the heavy shutters and doors that allowed no light to penetrate, a quick breakfast of coffee and eggs and we were ready for a day at the citadelle. Dominique and Jenny arrived promptly, our first stop was the fire department to pick up a firefighter who for logistical reasons (?) would be accompanying Josie and myself on the walk.  Cap-Haitien was still a hive of activity/chaos, however , leaving the city behind we started to see fields of crops (lots of sugarcane) and cattle, as well as daily life from the roadside habitations, all of which were surrounded by lush green mountains.

Our destination was the town of Milot which was about 12 miles from Cap-Haitien, its home to the Sans Souci Palace as well as being at the foot of the mountain upon which the Citadelle is located. It was from here were we planned to walk the 5 miles (8 kilometers) uphill to the Citadelle (you can also choose to drive to a higher carpark and walk only the last 2 kilometers to the Citadelle). Accompanied by our firefighter (whose only 2 words of english were 'stop' and 'go' which she shouted with relish) we set off, Dominique and Jenny were going to drive and meet us at the upper carpark.  It transpired that we were the only 2 people who were walking the whole route - we were passed by a handful of tourists either clinging on to the back of motorcycles or sitting in the back of open topped trucks, it seemed a shame to whizz by and miss what turned out to be a wonderful hike. The road was lined with trees and various crops (coffee, cocoa, avacardos, mangos, plantains, papayas to name but a few), interspaced with a few basic homes. The views were stunning, the Haitiens we met were friendly and although we were approached to buy the occasional trinket we did not feel in the slightest either hassled or threatened.

Eventually  we got our first glimpse of the Citadelle and shortly afterwards arrived at the upper carpark. There was a cafe, clean toilets and a number of stall holders (still no real hassle), along with a number of horses for those who didn't even want to walk the last couple of kilometers (there were plenty of takers). Here we were introduced to our guide who was to take us upto and around the citadelle - our fighfighter spoke to him and he translated that could we please walk a little slower as she was struggling to keep up with us !  The final stretch of walk gave us regular glimpses of the Citadelle, there were more vendors selling food and drinks along the way as well as opportunities to buy paintings and wood carvings and enterprising youngers making a din with drums and wind instruments made from bamboo. The number of visitors increased, but certainly there were no more than a hundred or so and all but a handful were Haitiens.

I'd seen it in pictures, I'd seen it in the distance, finally I was at the base of the Citdelle itself.

The Citadelle is the largest fortress in the Western hemisphere and was built when Haiti became a free republic. It was built by Henri Christophe who was a key leader during the Haitien slave rebellion during which time they gained independance from France. It was designed to keep Haiti safe from French incursions, though never used. It is virtually in the same state as when built and boasts the dubious record of housing the largest number of 18th Century armamants in the world (365 cannons plus stockpiles of cannonballs).

It was seriously impressive to walk around, a real testiment to engineering let alone the determination involved in free men hauling all the materials and guns upto the top of the mountain. The cannons, mortars and stockpiles of munitions are staggering and the vistas are breathtaking. Without a doubt it alone was worth the trip to Haiti and our guide did a fantastic job of telling us its history.

Returning to the carpark, we took the car back down to Milot and spent some time walking around the ruins of the palace, it must have been stunning in its day and if the heat of the day and hunger had not been taking their toll we could have given it the time it deserved, rather than the 20 minutes we managed.

We headed back to the hotel for some lunch and a siesta. Later I wandered a few blocks from the hotel to the central square and cathedral, I felt pretty safe considering I was the only white face I saw and people were friendly to my presence.

Afterwards it was pool time, rum and cokes and creole fish with rice and plantains before sucumbing to the sleep of the dead.

An early morning saw us heading throuh all but empty streets (a Sunday) back to the airport and a flight back to the Turks and Caicos.

Another countey visited, another 'wish list' item checked, but most importantly of all another side of Haiti seen.

Go visit Haiti and change perceptions, both yours and others.

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