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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The last island of the Antilles: Grenada

On the last day of our cruise the crew organised a “meeting with the captain”. It was a truly fascinating hour during which the captain, his first mate and a third officer answered all kinds of questions from the audience. For example we learnt that our ship (“Jewel of the Seas”) does not all the time travel in circle in the Caribbean from Puerto Rico to Puerto Rico. Rather, depending on the season the ship will go to different corners from the world. In summer it’s in Alaska, in the fall it’s in the Mediterranean, at some point it even goes to South East Asia. When asked which of the places on the itinerary were his favourites, the captain to my surprise said it was Grenada.

Grenada is the last, i.e. Southernmost island in the Antilles archipelago. Further South is South America with its satellite islands.

Grenada is marketed as the Spice Island due to a huge choice of spices available here. As for me, I knew it mostly as the island which was attacked by Ronald Reagan.

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Saint Lucia, the most authentic of the Caribbean islands

Saint Lucia is rightly considered the most authentic of all the Caribbean islands. Thanks to its population, climate, location and history it has preserved a particular character. Even though it is not the most isolated island and gets its share of visitors, most of it is nevertheless difficult to access and its population 174 thousand is sufficiently large to withstand the sea of tourists.

Saint Lucia was nicknamed the Helen of West Indies due to the fact that no other island changed hands so many times – no less than 14 times it was traded back and forth between the French and the British. Paradoxically, the last military conflict here was won by the French – and yet it was the Brits who stuck with Saint Lucia, thanks to a peace deal signed in faraway Europe. Today Saint Lucia is part of the Commonwealth and the head of state here is the British queen. And yet many of the local names in Saint Lucia are French, starting with the capital, Castries, which is named a French marquess. The locals pronounce it in English manner though, with the stress on the first syllable and without omitting the final “s” as you would in French.

Saint Lucia is remarkable for the fact that it happens to have the most Nobel prize winners per capita! As many as TWO islanders have won the prize – writer Derek Walcott and economist Arthur Lewis. By a strange coincidence both were born on the same day, 23 January.

As for me, it was particularly sweet to visit Saint Lucia as it was my 100th independent country. To reach 100 visited countries was one of my goals for 2015. Done!

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Colourful decay of overseas France: Martinique

Of the five islands on the route of our cruise, Martinique was the largest (population over 400 thousand) and most important in history and economics. On the other hand, unlike Antigua and others, it is not independent. Quite the opposite – it’s a department of the French Republic formally equal in rights and obligations to any other department. It does have an additional special status – département d’outre-mer, or DOM – which means “overseas department” in French. Among other things, it allows Martinique to benefit from rather substantial EU grants.

France keeps a whole laundry list of various tiny territories all over the world – remains of the former giant colonial empire. The French constitution groups them in various clusters, some of which overlap. This complex system was previously referred to as DOM-TOM (“overseas departments and territories”), but following recent reforms this abbreviation has become obsolete – now it would be DROM-COM, though in the corridors the old way is still used.

Welcome to this shard of France stuck in the middle of the Caribbean! Liberté égalité fraternité say hello!

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Blotch of Antigua with its 365 beaches of eternal sun

Antigua and Barbuda was the first “independent” country that we visited on our cruise. I put “independent” in reversed quotes for the simple reason that in the Caribbean the notion of independence is very relative. In many ways the island mini-states here are closely tied to their former colonial masters, and their very economy is such that it’s built around visitors and the vast majority of consumed goods are imported. And yet formally Antigua and Barbuda is perfectly independent. The total population of this country is 80 thousand people, 98% of which live on the larger of the two islands – Antigua. Antigua plays the role of a transport node of the Caribbean – even though there are only cursory regular airplane connections between the various islands, the flights that exist tend to all connect right here in Antigua airport.

But the main treasure of Antigua are surely its beaches. They say there are 365 of them – one for each day of the year! It’s a kind of a long tale, of course, and yet it highlights the fact that virtually of all of the island’s shoreline is one endless beach. From above Antigua looks like a huge blotch of ink delineated from everywhere by virtually uninterrupted beaches. With our cruise ship acquaintance we headed to his favourite beach in the North of the island.

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A Denmark in the Antilles: Charlotte-Amalie of the US Virgin Islands

The title of being the busiest cruise port for the Caribbean goes to Miami. In seven days though the cruises from Miami can only reach Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands and return – it is too far to go to the rest of the Antilles. San Juan is the second most popular cruise ship port, and its georgraphical location allows to reach within seven days any point in the Caribbean. As a rule, the cruising companies plan the route in such a way that on five days of the cruise the ship is in port in various points of the Antilles and the sixth day is fully at sea. In our case the day at sea was the last day as we sailed all the way from Grenada (the last island in the Antilles chain) to Puerto Rico. We sailed with Royal Caribbean, and its cruises are such that the same ship never plies the same route – every week the route is somewhat different in terms of the islands visited, but always returning to Puerto Rico. There is one port however that is on almost every itinerary – that’s Charlotte-Amalie on the island of Saint Thomas, one of the American Virgin islands.

Actually we didn’t even notice how the ship left Puerto Rico. It was dark and we were dining and suddenly we realised that through we no longer see through the windows the evening lights of San Juan. Rather it was the darkness of the open ocean as we were sailing past it at a good speed. Waking up the next morning and looking out the window, it was an “It ain’t Kansas, Toto!” moment. It was clearly not Puerto Rico, this tropical island down below.

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Puerto Rico: Strange Spanish-speaking United States

The United States owns a few strange territories whose status has never been clearly defined. Some call them colonies, and this is indeed what they were initially. Nowadays the formal designation is “unincorporated territory”. As the US formed, there were lots of these – indeed virtually all the states except the original thirteen passed through the various “unincorporated” stages. However eventually most of them reached statehood – although for some it took a long and determined fight, such as for Hawaii, which only became a state in 1959. No new states have been created since then, and so Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and a few others remained “in the air”.

Puerto Rico is officially referred to as a “commonwealth”. The population of the commonwealth by now exceeds that of many states. To be fair, Puerto Ricans themselves are not decided about what they want to be. The three options being eternally debated are independence, statehood and status quo. Puerto Ricans enjoy most of the rights of US citizens, with the exception of being able to vote for President and to elect Senators. As a candidate, Obama supported the idea of conducting a referendum to set the final status. However in order to approve such a referendum, the agreement of U.S. Congress is necessary – and that’s missing.

Much like Hawaii, Puerto Rico receives large subsidies from the mainland. Its special status also allows it to create a special business and tax regime, and as a result most pharmaceuticals made in USA are produced right here on the island. Obviously lots of American tourists come here as well and support the local economy with their dollars.

Everybody speaks Spanish in San Juan, and so you get a strange feeling of walking around Spanish-speaking United States. I guess in 20 years California and Texas will feel similar (parts of Miami and New York already do). The currency is the dollar and the prices are very American too – feels very different compared to Colombia, where I’d been just prior. On per capita basis, Puerto Rico is poorer than the poorest U.S. state (Mississippi), however it’s richer than any Latin American country.

San Juan from the air. Old San Juan is the peninsula in the centre of the image.

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Nassau – the capital of pirates, cruise ships and conches

It takes only 55 minutes to fly from Miami to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, but the actual flight time is unpredictable – Bahamas Air is famous for being always late. It didn’t disappoint, though the delay in my case was only one hour. Indeed the flight was announced as “on time” until the moment of boarding, notwithstanding the pesky watches and their nonsense. Everyone participating in this performance – the passengers, the flight attendants, the airport personnel – kept a complete and solemn calm, walking around as if on a beach promenade in Cannes.

Most Bahamians are black, as you would realise boarding my flight. The Bahamas is not a poor country though – on the contrary, prices in Nassau are very substantial, and hotels in mid-price category are nowhere in sight. They’re actually near impossible to find! Eventually I discovered a guesthouse kept by an elderly Greek couple that cannot be booked online – you can only call and shout for half an hour hoping that they’ll finally hear you and note your arrival! But it was a nice and homey place.

Nassau lives to the rhythm of the cruise ship. A giant vessel or two enters port every day, and for the hours it’s there Nassau is like an ant mound, its Main Street shops are full of tourists, restaurants serve kilograms of overpriced American fare to American visitors, museums are open and the town lives. As night falls and the ship leaves port, all of a sudden a silence reigns, everything appears closed, and a rare empty restaurant boasts of one or two visitors at most.

The main sight of Nassau is probably the Pirate Museum.

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Taking stock of one mad trip

It is often like that with travel. You feel somewhere between amused and bored as you wander around a strange faraway destination. And yet as you look back at that moment just a couple of months later from another place thousands of kilometres away, the very fact of having physically occupied a small piece of the Earth out there seems surreal.

That is how I feel now that I am back in Europe, as I look back at my trip around Latin America and the Caribbean. So many places discovered, so many new (and old) people met, so many impressions and events… and all of that in such a short timespan!

Sometimes I think back about my days before this crazy two-year-long trip and it feels to me as if all of it was in another life. I have changed so much, experienced so much and learnt so much. And simply time-wise it feels like a temporal abyss separates me from that day in 2013 when I left Brussels.

Certainly it was the most intense period of my life.

As for you, my dear blog, I must apologise to you that I haven’t spent much time with you in these last months. You are probably well and truly upset with me. Yes, other causes have consumed my energy. I could probably write 25 posts about all the places I visited during that time. And in the back of my mind I still have that idea, that need – to write about these places. Now that I will not write about them day to day, it will be a retrospective look. But how surreal and magical it feels to take that look.
Looking down at Minsk

The oldest city in the Americas: Santo Domingo

Actually it’s been two months since I left Asia and arrived in Central America. Very intense time indeed, lots of places visited, people met, photos taken. While changing planes in Brussels, I accidentally bumped into my former colleagues from Unit R1 who were going on an audit mission. Talk about coincidences! But it was a fascinating moment, to suddenly imagine how it would feel to be back, and of course to get an update of all the interesting developments.

Right now I am in Costa Rica. However my trip around Central America started in the Dominican Republic. I took a flight from Brussels to Santo Domingo, the little-visited capital. Which happens to be the oldest city in the Americas. Columbus himself was a governor, as were his brother and his son Diego. This is where the Spanish conquest of the Americas was planned and executed: the expeditions to Mexico, Central America and further South all started here. Due to the wind pattern in the Atlantic Santo Domingo was an obligatory stop for sailing ships both on the way from Europe and on the way back. Santo Domingo lost its importance after Sir Francis Drake, at the time a British-sponsored pirate, took it and looted it thoroughly in 1583. The centre of gravity of the Spanish Americas moved irreversibly towards the continent.

Yes, by the way, if you ever wondered where the name of the Dominican Republic comes from – very easy! The Republic is named after the capital city, and the capital city takes its name from the Catholic saint – and the founder of the monastic order which used to be rather powerful here.

The Columbus park is the heart of the colonial town – Zona Colonial, as it’s known here.

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