If you haven’t yet seen my main haiti pics, take a look here first:
Before I start, I’d like to note that Haiti is not a safe place to visit right now and if you’re considering this to take real care. From the US Government website:
“This Travel Warning is being issued to advise American citizens to defer non-essential travel to Haiti until further notice… U.S. citizens traveling to and residing in Haiti despite this warning are reminded that there is also a chronic danger of violent crime, especially kidnappings. Most kidnappings are criminal in nature, and the kidnappers make no distinctions of nationality, race, gender or age; all are vulnerable. There were 29 reported kidnappings of Americans in 2007. As of the date of this Travel Warning, fourteen Americans were reported kidnapped in 2008. “
The problem is with high gas prices, food prices are being forced up, and the average Haitian is being pushed further down in poverty, which is leading to more rioting and problems. In addition, Haiti currently has no real leader – they are supposed to vote for a new prime minister and for some reason this has been delayed for the past 4 months. In previous times Haiti has been safe and I am sure it will be in future.
With that said, this was by far one of the most fun and interesting trips I’ve ever taken!
I’ve wanted to visit northern Haiti for a long time – it’s the area where Christopher Columbus landed, in fact his boat “Santa Maria” sank there right near Cap Haitian. I live in the Dominican Republic and have been here since 2001, so I’m pretty familiar with the island of Hispaniola. I also don’t know how much longer I will be in the Dominican Republic, so I wanted to take advantage of still being here – setting up a trip like this remotely would be much more difficult. This part of Haiti is only a few hours away yet is an entirely different culture – they’ve developed completely differently despite having similar resources on the same island. I also have travelled rather a lot and am not interested in boring trips to Europe, etc. Going someplace that is a little more off the beaten path is appealing to me.
How did I do it?
It wasn’t easy. I don’t know anybody in this part of the country and there was no way I was going alone. Through a teacher in Santiago I was able to get some contacts. He was the right guy to help, he’s been living in the Dominican Republic for over 40 years. He referred me to a policeman on the border who is half Haitian and wanted to make some extra income, along with a couple of students in Haiti who lived in the town. Given the risk of this travel I decided to take a couple of options, inviting both the policeman and one of the Haitian students. This meant if something went wrong with one of the guys I had another option to fall back on. Both were paid, $50/day per guy each, $300 total for the trip. I was also covering all travel costs, food, etc. My total trip costs came to around $1000. I could do it cheaper in future, but this felt like the safest approach.
People speak French in Haiti (about 60% of the population) but in practice that didn’t work. My French isn’t strong anymore, but I just found their accent difficult to understand. Creole, the main language of the country was completely incomprehensible. And while my Spanish is good, nobody in Haiti speaks Spanish. So I had to have someone with me all the time.
I’ve travelled to around 50 countries and lived in 7, including Medellin, Colombia just 5 years after Pablo Escobar was killed. I’ve never had a problem anywhere because I *always* follow one simple rule: I always do what the locals tell me to do. And that’s what happened on this trip which made things work a number of times.
We also had to watch the timing of hurricanes because there are many passing at the moment. I went right after Hurricane Faye and just before Hurricane Gustav. There was also some military disturbances in Cap Haitian a few weeks before when I originally planned to go so we had to wait for that to cool down. Basically, following the news beforehand was critical, along with checking in regularly with the guys on the ground. I decided to keep the trip short, partly due to work commitments, but also to limit my time on the ground. I was there for just 2 nights.
The last thing I did was to make sure I had a fair amount of cash – using credit cards and ATM cards in a country like this isn’t too good as they can be used for fraud. So I had around $1300 in cash on me – which I was surprised to later read that the average annual income in Haiti is $1300.. I was also startled to read that the Haitian government budget is around $900M/year – my friend Tony Hsieh from Zappos manages a $1B/year budget, and that’s just one company!!
On entering Haiti:
Carlos the policemen and I caught the bus from the Haitian border town after crossing over from the DR. Making the crossing was a real hassle with people constantly surrounding me to sell things. The entire area was waterlogged due the hurricane that had passed through a few days before. I’ve always thought the drainage in the DR was bad but we never have this kind of problem.
Once we got on the bus everything was fine.. then about an hour into the trip, I felt something moving around on my feet.. Horrible, it felt like a rat! I couldn’t see anything when I looked down, but then there it was.. A chicken had gotten away from the lady behind me and was sitting on my feet! I jumped up on the seat and asked Carlos what to do – he told me to just push it away. I managed to do that without being pecked. It was rather funny, nobody else in the bus batted an eye.
This lead to a rather interesting conclusion about chickens and animals in general in Haiti. They don’t take chicken meat on the bus, it’s always live chickens that are tied up and they’re treated rather poorly. This happens because they don’t view it as a chicken – to them it’s really just a protein food source which is convenient to travel with since it’s alive and won’t go off.
The road to Cap Haitian was in very good condition – when I asked about it later, apparently it’s just been remade.. they’ve been waiting 20 years for it to be done!! It has cut the travel time down to 2 hours from 5 hours. We had police checks every 10-20 minutes, and they stopped the van and got in each time. When I asked about it, I was told it’s because there have been a lot of robberies and carjacking on the road in the past. Naturally I assumed this was 10 years ago in the past, but when I asked for clarification Carlos told me that just 8 months ago it was very bad! Yikes!!
Once we got to Cap Haitian, we were met by hundreds of people running around, offering taxis and all kinds of other stuff.. Fortunately we met up with Demel and his cousin who was to be our Cap Haitian guides. Demel had an SUV and took us straight to a nice hotel. What a relief!
We went out later that night. One interesting thing that happened was I met a pretty Haitian girl (no, gossip people, nothing happened!! 🙂 ). I was joking around with her and asked to see her cellphone photos which she happened to have opened. She showed me, and as I browsed through them I got a lump in my throat. This was just a random cute girl at a bar, which is the same scene anywhere in the world. But her pictures were all of absolute poverty, cinderblock housing, and no furniture. These were the photos of her life.
The money was a problem. In Haiti they refer to “dollars” which can mean either USD or Haitian Dollars, depending on the context (ie value). They also use Haitian Gourdes which are the primary currency. I got rather confused by it all, but was protected from overspending too badly by having the guys with me. The currency was extremely dirty – so dirty that I didn’t want to put it in my wallet.
The rest of the sightseeing we did was relatively uneventful since I was surrounded by guys and we were in an SUV most of the time. The pictures do a good job of showing what we saw.
When it came time to go home, we managed to get a nice bus which had air conditioning. We had to wait a while before it filled up. At one point a young father (maybe 23) with 2 small daughters wanted to catch the bus. He got in a big fight several times with the driver in front of the small girls over the price – the driver was extremely aggressive and it made me feel really bad, so I just paid for all of them to ride with us (maybe cost $30).
And as soon as we arrived at the border town, Carlos’s mother showed up, furious with him! It turned out because we were late getting back she was going to notify the Haitian police to come looking for us. It seems she was a little protective of her son – but note that these are the kinds of backups that happen when you have solid local guides.
Then the next problem was that the border was closed! But Carlos said “no problem – we’ll go in by the river!”. It seems this is a relatively common occurrence and there was a bunch of Haitians in the dirty waist deep water ready to carry everyone across. Carlos picked out a guy for me and I got on his back with my bag. We almost fell over in the water (which would have cost my camera and cellphone) but a couple of guys came and helped. Could I have walked myself? Yes, but I didn’t want to get all wet, and it was pretty dirty. As from before, I do what the locals tell me to do! Carlos soon followed on the back of another guy, along with his mother and her sister. I would never have considered something like this on my own, but as they say “when in Rome.. “. I’m rather proud to be the likely first Australian ever to get into the Dominican Republic by crossing the river. “Un gringo mojado por cierto!”
There were some Dominican military near the border and they checked over all our paperwork. Since Carlos was a policeman in the town this was relatively easy to work out, and we were soon let back into the DR.
Relief! It was a great feeling to be back in the DR, in a country I understand and language I can speak. And I was very happy to have pulled off this trip successfully.
All in all this was one of the absolute best trips I’ve taken to date just because it was so interesting.
I’d encourage you to visit Haiti, but be *extremely* careful right now. The whole time I was there I only saw one other tourist and he was riding around seemingly unaccompanied in public transport which I thought was a bit careless. If you have any questions feel free to post them in the comments.