Haiti was the first truly exotic destination I experienced in nearly forty years of travel. Armed with Eastern Airlines air passes, my father and I spent twenty one days island hopping through the Caribbean. We hit Costa Rica, the Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Martinique and the most memorable of all, Haiti. This past summer, while sorting through and digitizing the thousands of slides I had collected over the years, I discovered some of these early photos and they brought back a flood of memories. While the quality of the photography leaves something to be desired, the photos offer a glimpse of an adventure that set the hook on my lifelong travel addiction.
The history of Haiti is sad and violent. That sadness and violence continues even today. Brought in as slaves to work the plantations and inspired by the French Revolution of 1791, the natives managed to kill all of the French and take over the island for themselves in the early 1800s. One of the first rulers was Gen. Henri Christophe. He himself was an ex-slave and in 1811 he declared himself king. Throughout his bloody reign, he remained paranoid that the French would return and take the island back. As a precaution, he built a fortress on top of a remote mountain where he could see a French invasion coming. Having a commanding view of northern Haiti, it could only be reached on horseback climbing steep narrow trails.
My father and I drove to the remote mountain in a rental car that I had booked in the capital of Port-au-Prince. When we got to the base of the mountain, we rented small tropical horses and began the climb. As we finally made it to the top, I saw a number of ruined buildings and a large flat platform made of stone. Our guide took me out to the edge of the platform. I’m sure I uttered a loud audible gulp as I looked down. My toes were only a few inches from the edge of the platform and it was a several thousand foot drop below. There were no guardrails. OSHA would never approve. The guide told us the story of how Christophe would impress his visitors by marching his troops to the edge and wouldn’t say halt until the first few rows fell to their death. It was a spectacular view but standing on the edge looking down thousands of feet, one couldn’t help but think of the violent history of this place.
Haiti has been plagued by a long series of brutal dictators like Christophe. At the time we were there, Papa Doc Duvalier and his crazy son, baby Doc, were in charge. Baby Doc used to race his Ferrari on the airport runway while airliners full of tourists had to circle and wait to land. I remember walking by their palace in Port-au-Prince. Papa Doc had placed a large sign across the palace grounds reading “President a Vie” – President for life. Papa Doc kept an iron-fisted grip on the island through his dreaded secret police, the Ton Ton Macoute. As a joke, the locals started calling my father and me, Papa Gene and Baby Gene.
We were two divorced guys on holiday. We loved the attention of the locals gave us. One particular young fellow, Jean Pierre Cearc, became our local concierge and general go-getter. If we needed a delicious bottle of Barbancourt rum, he was there. Hearing that my father was now single, he set out to find him a new bride. He introduced Papa Gene to the lovely Clarice, a chubby but rather charming maid who worked for a family living nearby. It wasn’t a match made in heaven but my father was very amused by it and enjoyed meeting her.
While interacting with the locals was a very pleasant experience, we found that the island was a culinary and visual feast. We loved the French influenced cuisine. One could get a fantastic meal in an upscale restaurant in Petionville for a bargain price. What I enjoyed even more was the famous colorful primitive art on display throughout the country. A visit to the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince was a visual feast. I bought several paintings and statues that are still decorating my home to this day.
While exploring the south end of the island, we visited the town of Jamel. I noticed an art gallery and decided to check it out. The proprietor turned out to be a famous poet and art critic, Selden Rodman. I chatted with him for some time and bought his latest book, The Miracle of Haitian Art. Apparently he liked to escape the pressures of the New York art world by taking up residence in Haiti for extended periods of time. He was well known as one of the foremost authorities on Haitian art. He wanted to know if I played tennis. He said that they had a loading dock there that made a pretty good tennis court. Since my father and I needed to get back to the capital, I passed on the offer A few years later when I was having lunch with a couple of art instructors from my college, they were very impressed that I had met such a major luminary from the art world. What did I know? I was a business major.
I believe it is still possible to visit The Citadel and Haiti in general. However, as everyone knows, they have experienced a great many disasters in recent years including a major earthquake and are still going through a recovery. One would be well advised to check very carefully before traveling there. Having said that, it’s well worth a visit if you can manage it and the tourism dollars would be greatly appreciated