A Mountainous Land
Columbus, when asked by queen Isabella to describe Hispanola is reputed to have crumpled up a piece of paper, dropped it on the table, and said: "That is Hispanola." The story may be apocryphal but the description is apt. Haiti is a land of steep mountainous terrain. It occupies the western third of the island of Hispanola which it shares with the Dominican Republic. No accurate census has been carried out but the population is estimated to be about seven million. About two million more Haitians live abroad. New York and Miami in particular have large Haitian communities.

With a land area of only 10,000 square miles the population density is very high and people live everywhere. Thatch roofed cottages and tiny settlements dotting the hill sides and even atop steep mountain ridges create a distinct Haitian landscape. The prevailing winds place much of Haiti in the rain shadow of the wetter mountains farther to the east in the Dominican Republic. Extensive deforestation has further contributed to the aridity. Some areas, especially in the northwest, are desert with bare earth, scattered thorny shrubs and cacti prevailing.

The Countryside
Early accounts describe extensive forests of which virtually nothing remains. Deforestation, extensive agriculture, and overgrazing by domestic animals combined with steep terrain and periodic tropical downpours has resulted in extensive erosion. Even so, every house or settlement is surrounded by palms, fruit and shade trees and the countryside has an appeal, even a beauty, uniquely its own quite apart from whatever its undisturbed nature may have been.

Though mountains dominate the landscape they do not prevail entirely. Lush coastal plains and inland valleys support productive agriculture. The coastline is extensive and diverse. Steep rocky shore predominates but is frequently interrupted by extensive mangrove estuaries, superb protected bays and some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean still virtually untouched by tourism.

The People
In Haiti a small urban elite descended largely from the mulattoes has tended to dominate the politics and money economy of the country. The urban poor and a large population of rural peasants mostly engaged in subsistence farming make up some 95% of the population. The urban elite are French speaking, well educated (often in France), at least nominally Christian and look to France for culture. Many are multilingual in French, English, Spanish and of course Creole. Socially they are delightful people with a sophisticated international outlook. The urban poor and peasants are African in origin, culture and society. They speak Creole, a patois, French in vocabulary but African in grammar and syntax.

The capitol and by far the largest city is Port-au-Prince a crowded and very busy low rise metropolis which retains much of the ambiance of times past. Other important but much smaller towns include Cap Haïtien on the north coast, Jacmel on the south and Jérémie in the southwest. All are a step back in time to an era lost in the past elsewhere in the Caribbean.

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