I am aware of the oft-repeated data point that Haiti is “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” As we took off for Port-Au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, I was primed for poverty. Having been there, I have to say that Haiti gets an unduly bad rep. (Either that, or the Western Hemisphere is way more awesome than I think.) If you’ve done any traveling in Southeast Asia, for example, Port-Au-Prince will look quite normal to you.
We had planned to spend just over 24 hours in Haiti [** see note at end of post]. Of course, we were asked the inevitable question, “Why would you go to Haiti?” My standard response to this type of question is, “Because it’s there.” After all, wasn’t that basically what moved mankind to set foot on the moon? All we had to do was board a plane. And yet friends told us, “I hope you come back okay.” Yes, Haiti does get a bad rep. And our friends were not crazy — this is proved by the singular lack of tourist types on our plane (there were Haitians, and one group of missionaries.) I was lucky enough to be seated on the right side of the plane flying in, so I had a bird’s eye view of the swarm of small buildings crammed into the entire space between the ocean and the surrounding low hills, their metallic roofs glinting in the sun.
Some minutes later, Charlie, our cheerful driver, was taking us through those buildings. Our first stop was the national museum. So, we’ve heard all about Haiti’s poverty. Did you know that Haiti, in 1803, was the second country (after the United States) in the Western Hemisphere to gain independence from colonial rule? Did you know that it was the first to cast off the shackles of slavery, beating the United States by a good many decades? Did you know it was one of the original 56 signatories of the United Nations charter? I didn’t either, until I went to that museum.Downtown Port-Au-Prince was hard-hit by that earthquake in 2011, and you can still see the evidence around you. The main cathedral stands abandoned and broken in the center of town. But the hubbub of life goes on all around. People walk, or travel in vans that are basically pick-ups with metal awnings added over the trailers. We were in a little car, no air-conditioning, sweating with the windows rolled down. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Checking into our uncharacteristically nice hotel (we are usually very budget travelers), I remembered a trip we had taken to Jamaica, when we once got a deal at a name-brand all-inclusive resort — one you see in all the nice brochures. I hated the experience. I hated the feeling of being insulated from the people around me, ignoring the sweat and tears that went into making this cocoon of sand-and-sea the paradise it was for hundreds of tourists lying on the beach, sunning themselves by the blue waters, asking for another cocktail. I’m glad I tasted a little bit of that sweat before retreating into my cocoon this time.
I liked Haiti — the people I met, the energy I felt. Jared Diamond, in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, says, “The question that all visitors to Haiti ask themselves is other there is any hope for the country, and the usual answer is no.” I disagree with the usual answer.
**Full disclosure: No, we are not whimsical idiots with more money than sense. My husband happens to work for an airline, which means free flights for both of us. We have translated this into a hobby of international travel. This is neither as expensive, nor as glamorous as it sounds. But it is fun. So much fun that I would urge this career/romantic option on you. And if that is not a possibility, don’t fret — refer to this post.