"Fascinating and surprising Haiti." Haiti by melosh
Haiti Travel Guide: 329 reviews and 813 photos
Since my first visit in 2009 I have spent a month in Haiti doing emergency surgical work following the January 12th earthquake, and more recently two medical mission trips to northern Haiti (March 2012 and 13). The last three trips were not typical VT type travel experiences as evidenced by the very few photos I took, but they were not unrelated to my first trip. The prior experience of my first visit made relating to Haitian workers and patients much easier and richer. These VT pages include comments and observations from all four visits. Haiti remains an off the beaten path country. This is justifiably so.
There are a number of countries in the world that have recently passed through turbulent times and still retain a reputation of being very dangerous that may be now undeserved. I recently visited one of these countries, Liberia, and that experience added to my curiosity about Haiti. Could Haiti really have more than twice the per capita income and still be poorer than Liberia? Knowing how misleading per capita statistics can be, I wondered whether the reputation of Haiti as being impossible --and impossibly poor -- was deserved. After 3 years of medical work visits to the Dominican Republic, each with a growing curiosity about the second country sharing the Island of Hispaniola, I decided to cross the border and see for myself in 2009.
I crossed the northern part of the border at Dajabon, D.R. On the Haitian side the immigration officer asked me what organization I was from. He was startled when I indicated that I was just coming to see the country for myself. "For tourism?" he asked in French. He said he had not seen a tourist in 2 years. When I handed him the $21 USD I had been lead to believe was the entrance fee, he handed me back $10 and welcomed me to Haiti. (The land entrance fee is now $5 USD and Exit fee is $10. You also pay a $20 exit fee from the DR and $10 DR entrance fee for a "tourist card" when crossing the border (2013).
At many other places I was told that I was the first American tourist that they had seen in years. I did hear that Royal Caribbean Cruise lines stop at Caps Haitien on Mondays and some Thursdays.
On my first visit, I walked a lot and took buses, vans and pickup trucks referred to as tap-taps between towns. This involved tightly packed travel with Haitians and more dust than I prefer, but it was not hard to find transport. At bus stops motorcycles have replaced taxis (cars) for short trips into and around town and short trips in the country, but I mostly chose to walk. In Port au Prince and Caps Haitien there were cars working as "publicos" and I had no difficulty hiring one for my trip from Port au Prince to the airport.
First Impressions from a 10 day visit --still valid.
Haiti is poor and many Haitians are very poor, but there is less misery than I expected. The population appeared to be involved in tremendous agricultural and small scale commercial activity. The number of people involved in street marketing was legion with the profitability for individual vendors certainly very small. Many were selling the same used clothing or in season fruits and vegetables. Others would be in the resale of imported goods or locally manufactured drinks. Many people were cooking and selling food on the streets. Most of the in-building restaurants were not very appealing by first world standards with just a few tables, a low level of cleanliness, poor lighting and often an absence of evidence of any recent fresh cooking. Even in 2009 many of restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet were closed. It seems that the political troubles of the last decades have resulted in a brain drain of successful small business owners. Now after the earthquake, the little tourist infra-structure present can be said to be insignificant.
On my first visit, lots of small private construction was underway and the building supply business seemed to be booming. Large projects and large commercial enterprises were less evident. Now the emphasis may be more on just survival and recovery.
Haiti is alive and livable, but you can not expect Euro-American or even Chinese standards. Haitians are easy to talk to and very sociable, but often encounters move from easy greetings to a request of the "blanc, blanc" for a few Haitian dollars. On my first visit this begging seemed to come from every age person and circumstance; It was so universal that it seemed mostly unrelated to true need. I received contradictory statements about whether this is common between Haitians or is just a response to white faced people. This repetitive aspect of social interaction was tiring. Oddly, I experienced a lot less of this on my two post earthquake visits.
There is a lot of living going on in the streets. The sidewalks and even the edges of the streets are often occupied by small merchants. In central Port au Prince at night, I did see a fairly large number of homeless people sleeping along the streets. With so much poverty it is easy to walk in fear of encountering a desperate criminal. I personally did not see anyone to fear.
It is utterly amazing how much garbage can be produced by people living in the streets in a single 24 hour period. In the afternoon during my first visit it looked like the garbage has been collecting for days. Before the earthquake, in the morning large mounds of garbage had been hauled away and much of the street and sidewalk areas had been swept "clean".
Although Haiti is famous for its deforested mountains, what was more impressive to me was the extensive agriculture. There are broad fertile valleys and cultivated hillsides. There are also green mountainsides and brown dry mountains. There are stretches with scrub and cacti as well as low lying marshy irrigated land.
The word "haiti" is reportedly a Taino name meaning mountainous country. (The Tainos were the inhabitants of the island at the time of the arrival of Columbus.) The mountainous nature of the countryside actually makes Haiti more picturesque than the Dominican Republic.
A bureaucracy like the US State Department can be slow to recognize change, so at the same time that they were promoting US business activity in Haiti they continued to declare the country not suitable for non-business visits. My experience prior to the earthquake indicate that now it was time to remove this restriction. Although Haitians at times would tell me be to be careful, they also said that I could go anyplace safely. I never felt threatened. I became more and more comfortable as I traveled and I would go back without fear. I did not find any increase in the threat of danger after the earthquake. I still consider it safe.
But now the inconvenience of lack of functioning infrastructure for visitors, makes travel really only appropriate for people with a mission to help recovery projects. One day travel in Haiti will again be for the hardy who enjoying seeing and interacting with people, rather than anyone looking for a resort or simple relaxing escape. The African cultural elements, the religious mixtures and the unique history make this a fascinating place to visit. The art is varied and affordable. Power outages and use of noisy generators or lack thereof cause some inconvenience and even discomfort. --air conditioners and fans are worthless when there is no electric power. The Creole language is a challenge, but between using some French, English or Spanish and some patience, one will do OK. If you are white or brown it can be a little unsettling to always be noticed as a curiosity pretty much anywhere you go. Another thing that takes getting use to is the poor public lighting. Even when things have returned to a more normal condition, you may just have to embrace the safety and anonymity of the darkness.
Hunger in northern Haiti was evident in 2012 at the beginning of the planting season. There was lots of economic activity and at a first glance people looked reasonably healthy, but at closer examination many really little children, para-pregnancy women and old people showed signs of malnutrition -- primarily protein and vitamin deficiencies. One very thin farmer I met at our clinic complaining of weakness revealed that over the last three months all he had eaten was rice and SOME beans.
After the earthquake I wrote a childrens' book called "SWAT". It is a story in Creole and English of a Haitian child hero. On my latest visit I got the chance to hear the book read in Creole to school children. They loved it. When asked why did they think that it was in English as well as Creole, a fifth grade student answered, 'because it is a story that should be shared with all children'. To cool! All the profits of the sale of the book go to literacy programs in Haiti and Liberia.
- Pros:Alive, vital, open, not really threatening. Complex.
- Cons:Dust, begging, over-priced lodging. Poverty. Post earthquake!
- In a nutshell:A revelation; one day it will again be OK for a curiosity visit.
This is a country where certain toiletries and medical supplies you may be comfortable with or need in an emergency... more travel advice
I usually am looking for simple clean places with reasonable locations and a price to match. I find it hard to recommend... more travel advice
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