I’m Not a Missionary or a “Do-Gooder…So Why Visit Haiti?
There were very few people who were actually flying to Haiti for a vacation and it was obvious who they were based on the conversations they were having with each other before and even while on the flight. Overwhelmingly, we, the few men and women seeking a sort of vacation and awakening of the soul choose Haiti because honestly we were told not to go. We were told that only missionaries and “do-gooders” go to Haiti. Not people who wanted to have fun or to enjoy the comforts that come with vacationing.
As I exited the airport that Thursday night, I was greeted—-no, bombarded by local taxi drivers offering their services. Each one pronounced his name, his trustworthiness and ability to do a great service in transporting me to my hotel. But I didn’t need their service because a friend was picking me up and in my mind this made the men dislike me. As I waited, fear of being kidnapped passed through as a fleeting but real thought. It was the last thing someone told me before I boarded my flight to Haiti.
My friend Clavens arrived, and we made the drive from the airport to the Royal Oasis hotel and even though it was night time, I could see a multitude of faces looking, people riding motorbikes and taxis called “Tap-Tap’s,” and driving cars and trucks in no organized or orderly fashion and with no stop lights or signs. I noticed the men and women still selling their goods on the street, not really calling out, but present and vigilant, with some bartering goods with other sellers, which made me feel like maybe everything I was told was right. These people were battering as a necessity, it was another form of currency. This was officially what I expected of a Third World country I said to myself. “I should have signed up for a missionary program or volunteer a few days at a non profit,” I thought because at least I would be helping to fight against the poverty I had just seen.
Then I walked through the doors of the first hotel I stayed at, The Royal Oasis, and I was almost too surprised for my liking. The décor, the service with a smile I was accustomed to, the being greeted with a beverage, and the bellhop who eagerly took my bags to my room started leading me to believe there was another side to the story about Haiti. That night my friend Clavens and some of his friends took me to a local spot called Smokey’s, and in the tradition of welcoming someone to the island, he made sure I tried the local Haitian rum called Barbancourt. Again, service was eager and swift and the waiter noticing that I was eyeing his bracelet gave it as an offering. The fact that the kitchen was technically closed, but they allowed me to order food should have said something to me, but I was too busy listening to music that sounded like a strange blend of genres, which I learned was Haitian-Hip Hop and was called “Raboday.”
The next morning it was a Friday, and I spent the day sightseeing and doing my cultural investigations. The drive to The MUPANAH Museum yielded even more insight into the people of Port-au-Prince. Everyone seemed to be doing, selling, lifting, and pouring something. The Museum of MUPANAH (Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien) provided a guided tour which was comprehensive. The museum had the remains of Toussaint Louverture at its core: a symbolic reminder of the Haitian Revolution and ancestral spirit of Haiti. The tour continued with artwork by Haitian artist, both alive and deceased, and provided information about the history of the country. I learned about when Haiti had been two separate countries and when the whole island of Hispaniola was under one rule with the Haitians in charge. After touring the museum, I had lunch at the MUPANAH restaurant, located directly behind the museum.
The restaurant boasted Haitian cuisine and did not disappoint. Then it happened– after paying in American dollars and receiving change, I tipped the waiter $10.00 USD. The young man looked at me in disbelief, and I thought maybe I made a mistake. I immediately asked my friend if everything was okay, and he explained, currently $1.00 USD equaled 65.00 HTG and so you just gave him 650 in Haitian money. My friend went on to share that even with a job in the service industry many people make only the equivalent of $10.00 USD a day. So, the young waiter’s excitement made sense to me.
That night a group of us made up of Haitians and Americans went to an exclusive party at the rooftop of The Karibe Hotel. The cars parked out front reminded me of South Beach in Miami, Florida because the cars were foreign and expensive. We were dressed as friends in America suggested, casual and comfortable, not bringing attention to ourselves. But as the men and women walked up to the club and passed us in their designer clothes, there was an air of exclusivity that perfumed the air, and I felt underdressed. One of us had missed the mark and was denied entrance because of not looking the part. We even tried flashing a few American dollars to the security guard, but he wasn’t interested and upheld the standards of the venue. Our egos were slightly bruised, I mean, we were the Americans showing up to the Haitian club and learned a valuable lesson for it. “The Haiti we were told to prepare for really didn’t exist and like any place there is still such a thing as class.”
Eventually, we did get to party at a club called “Shakerz,” but it was a less exclusive venue. The eager men outside immediately started offering to help us find a parking spot and keep an eye on our car, yet another service that we didn’t necessarily need. Though it wasn’t our first choice for the night, it still had great music, tapas and drinks. You see, by now I understood something: Some Haitians have to create jobs for themselves and a simple service can become one of profit, especially in the overcrowded capital of Port-au-Prince.
The next day was Saturday and Clavens, my two American friends also visiting, the driver who was hired for the week who also worked as a police officer (having the right to carry his gun) began the two-hour drive to Jacmel, Haiti– a beach town in the northern part of the country. The drive to Jacmel made me understand exactly why Haiti means “Land of High Mountains,” and I was extremely grateful to see the beauty of the landscape. The urban Haitian is unlike the rural Haitian, and of course this is similar to any other country, but the idea that not everyone is flocking to the capital of Port-au-Prince for opportunities means that some Haitians are surviving with what the land provides and are grateful for it. The cornhusk seen on the drive, the mangos being sold in baskets at street stalls, the charcoal being made alongside the mountainside were a stark contrast to the pervasive clutter seen in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
The view from my balcony at the Cap Lamandou Hotel created an image that made me forget that you were in an overcrowded city hours before. Our dinner was cooked to perfection, and the server went to and from with such delight and eagerness that it was finally apparent, to me atleast that Haitians are truly misunderstood for their eagerness to survive on the island. The entire dinner for five us came up to $159.00 USD. On Sunday morning we lounged around the pool and discussed our observations. That evening we went into the town center of Jacmel, and I met a local painter named Francis and bought a piece of his artwork for $50.00 USD. We ate and drank at Chantal a bar/restaurant in Jacmel in the town center called Lakou New York for less than $10.00 USD per person. What makes Haiti a great place to vacation is that your money goes a very long way and Jacmel being a less crowded and more a rural town allows you to experience a different group of Haitians.
That Monday morning, we returned to Port-au-Prince and stayed at the Best Western Hotel, not because the Royal Oasis was bad, but because someone suggested it, and we choose to stay in hotels for the comfort, and we wanted to see which was better. When booking always ask for special rates as they honor government rates to tourist. It is safe to say, staying at a hotel is perhaps the safer option if you are still worried because all the hotels I stayed at had 24 hour armed security and some even had police and United Nations soldiers’ presence. By this time, though, it really didn’t matter whether security was there or not because by the second day walking the streets, I felt no reason to fear for my safety. We honestly probably were in the way more than anything with our need to take pictures among the locals in the background.
I left Haiti that Tuesday morning. While at the airport someone was still eagerly trying to offer a service I didn’t need again, this time offering to carry our bags to the gate, but it wasn’t as off-putting as when I arrived that Thursday night because I understood something important: These people are the people I was told to fear, but they were some of the most resilient and creative people I ever came across, and the art and crafts sold along the streets and in stores all had a quality that was immediately recognizable.
So, I’m not a missionary or “do-gooder” for that matter, but I wanted to visit Haiti and see what the country had to offer its regular vacationing visitors, and in the end I was not disappointed. I was moved beyond words and I was extremely aware of my privilege as an American and that was humbling. I was treated with a lot of respect, and the people somehow instinctively knew they had to work to change my mind about what I was told about Haiti.