Category Archives: Haiti

The giant surprise of Haiti: Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci palace

An incredible giant fortress was built by the freed slaves for the Black King at the top of a mountain chain to fight back the return of Napoleon. Sounds like an alternative history novel? And yet it’s true. Citadelle Laferrière is located just 30 kilometres to the South of Cap-Haïtien. More than that: at the bottom of the mountain a black Versailles stands in ruins, a large sophisticated palace that was conceived by the black king as the centre of the administration of the newly built black kingdom.

This double attraction is the pride of Haiti and its main tourist sight. Inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is no doubt the most surprising and most impressive fortress built in the Western hemisphere after the “discovery” of America by Columbus. As I wandered around it, I was struggling to comprehend how the slaves that had just gained their freedom could built such a miracle of architecture in the middle of a country destroyed by the civil war? How an idea this brave could be born, what was the key to its methodical implementation?

Clearly, when this fortress was built, when the kingdom of Henri-Christophe just came into existence, the whole history of the world must have appeared very different, and the future too held a very different promise. It was the time when the United States had just been born, the French Revolution had just taken place. The reactionary forces had not yet suffocated the new growths of freedom in Europe. And Africa was not yet divided between colonial empires like a multi-coloured carpet. At that time anyone could be forgiven for thinking that freedom and self-sufficiency were within reach for any hopeful new country.

This is a video I made in Citadelle Laferrière. From its top levels I could see an incredible panorama of Haitian mountains descending towards the Atlantic in the distance. I added a song “Ayiti leve” from an album of Haitian music given to me by a friend long time ago. “Ayiti leve” in Creole means “Get up, Haiti!”

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Cap-Haïtien, once the Paris of the Antilles, and what’s left of it

Cap-Haïtien today is Haiti’s second most important city. However throughout the colonial times Cap-Haïtien was the capital of the French colony Saint-Domingue. And it was not simply a capital. It was the most luxurious city in all of the Caribbean, full of sophisticated buildings and decadent villas. In those days it was called Cap-Français and it was referred to as the Paris of the Antilles.

The secret of all this glory was that the French came up with the most efficient system of mass production of sugar cane of them all. As a result, Saint-Domigue was the richest colony in all of the New World. The rest of the colonisers looked at Saint-Domingue with envy and tried to copy its methods in their own territories.

However these incredible riches were built on two unsustainable factors. Firstly, the system required inhuman exploitation of black slaves. Several tens of thousands of white slaveowners used sadistic methods to enforce the backbreaking work of millions of black slaves. Secondly, the system irrevocably destroyed another resource – the soils that cover most of hilly Haitian countryside. These soils accumulated over thousands of years and were only sustained due to the forests that prevented the erosion from rain and wind. As these forests were cut down to make way for plantations, a quick and irreversible soil erosion followed. Today forests are only 5% of Haiti’s territory which was once all forest. The fertile soils are almost completely gone. This is the inheritance left to Haiti by the colonisers. Yet another inheritance is the “debt” of 90 million golden francs that Haiti would pay back to the French all the way to 1947. (Absurdly, some former French colonies in Africa are paying analogous “debt” to France to this day.)

The rare visitors to Cap often note how badly Haitians take care of their architectural heritage. They forget an important detail – Cap-Haitien was entirely destroyed in 1802 in the course of the liberation war with the French. All the buildings here were built after Haitian independence.

The city is indeed very beautiful and picturesque and obviously in bad condition. The taptap from Ouanaminthe let us out on the outskirts of the city where mototaxis were already waiting. Luckily I had exchanged some dollars to the local gourdes at the border, so I could negotiate in the local currency – and quickly agreed to be taken to my hotel for 50 gourdes (1 dollars). (In fact even that was too expensive.) This is how this and many other trips by mototaxi looked – it’s by far the most operational way to go around Haiti’s towns!

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How I finally got to Haiti: adventures on the border and what is taptap

Don’t be surprised – I’m NOT in Haiti right now! I decided to write a few posts about most amazing travel experiences during this last half-a-year – since the time I updated the blog regularly. A kind of a “Greatest Hits”. They will pop up in a kind of random order. First off – the most exotic of all – HAITI!

A visit to Haiti was in my sights already during my first visit to Santo Domingo. That time I couldn’t make it – despite trying numerous times to buy a bus ticket to Port-au-Prince. There was always a reason – the office of the only bus company that plies the route was unexplicably closed; or they wouldn’t have tickets; or the border was closed and the bus was cancelled – “Huelga!” shouted at me a black saleswoman when I inquired about the reasons.

And yet I was irresistibly drawn by Haiti – it felt like a truly weird place, wild, chaotic, exotic and unknown, a perfect candidate to broaden my own travelling horizons. Haiti is unique as the only country in the history of the world where a slave insurrection has been victorious and has led to independence. The slaves managed to defeat the troops sent by Napoleon himself!

Unfortunately, their hardwon freedom has not resulted in exemplary prosperity. The slave republic has long been an outcast in the world affairs, shunned by all of its colonial neighbours and even forced to pay absurd reparations to its former colonial master, France. In the 20th century constant meddling by the Americans guaranteed no sane leader could remain long in his position, whereas the terrible Duvalier dynasty had a free reign to terrorise the population for decades as long as they played ball with the United States. As if that wasn’t enough, an horrific earthquake struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. Today Haiti, while trying to rebuild itself, remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

So how did I make it there? I changed my tactics and decided to go to Haiti from Santiago de los Caballeros (DR’s second city) instead of Santo Domingo. As I flew to Santiago from Puerto Rico, first thing I did was visit the office of Caribe Tours that was supposed to sell tickets to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second city. That office was a windowless room hidden somewhere in the back of an out-of-town bus station in Santiago. A lone black man sat in the windowless room. As I switched from Spanish to French, his facial expression changed immediately as if he decided that my request to buy a ticket was not a joke. He sold me a bus ticket for the following morning. I didn’t reveal my excitement, knowing how nothing is set in stone when it comes to Haiti.

The following morning I was waiting in the station and – surprise, surprise – the bus arrived almost on time and off we went to Cap-Haitien. To make it all easier for myself, I left my large luggage bag in a hotel in Santiago and only took a small rucksack with me. Each and every passenger in the bus besides myself was black, with one notable exception: a crazy guy from South Korea who didn’t even speak any of the local languages – not Spanish and not French (not even mentioning Creole). Of course we started talking (in English) and it turned out he had also been to more than 100 countries. We did have a lot to discuss, especially considering that his travel collection was very different from mine – he’d been to a lot fo countries in Africa for example.

And yet Haiti did show it’s character. Let me explain. As we were approaching the border, all of a sudden a strange commotion set in inside the bus. A loud discussion turned into an argument turned into a shouting match – in Creole. Finally I managed to grab the travel hostess (yes, these buses feature a hostess who welcomes you on board, serves lunch, and is theoretically responsible for all border formalities). The hostess declared to me that the bus will not go further. Why??? The border is closed. Somebody has been killed and the police has closed the border bridge. The bus goes back to Santiago!!! However, if you want, you can cross the border on foot. And then organise your own transport to Cap-Haitien.

I think something in me already expected something like this. Otherwise why would I have taken only a rucksack with me? So I translated all this story to the South Korean, we looked at each other for a split second and of course decided that we would cross the border on foot. To her credit, the hostess took us in tow and took care of us in the immigration departments of the two countries. On this pic you can see as she leads the way to the Haitian immigration. She is second from left.

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