Impressions of Haiti

Isn't it Dangerous
Isn't it dangerous there! More of a statement than a question, it's often the response one gets if you mention travel to Haiti. Life anywhere is dangerous. The mortality rate is 100% but relatively speaking Haiti isn't too bad. For a visitor the risk is probably a bit worse than Zurich but somewhat better than Rio or Miami. Media reports of violence in Haiti are invariably related to political struggles. Haitian politics is often violent but outside that sphere Haitians are not a violent people.

As a visitor you aren't likely to be mugged on city streets and in the countryside you are most likely to be regarded with genuine friendliness and curiosity. Like anywhere common sense is advisable in not wandering about late at night and in avoiding the most desperate areas.

A Low Rise City
For a city approaching two million population, Port-au-Prince is remarkably low rise. The usual concrete and glass corporate monuments and high rise nesting boxes which dominate the skyline of almost all cities today are nowhere to be seen. Old and new, rich and poor, business and residential mix freely in an energetic menage.

Scattered everywhere are superb examples of the classic gingerbread style with its pillars, balconies, verandahs, cupolas, steeply gabled roofs and characteristic decorative wooden fretwork. Many of the older structures are wood. Some are freshly painted, others as barren and weathered as a desert ghost town.

New construction goes on everywhere. All is concrete but often attractively combined with natural stonework. Occasionally the latter is masterfully fitted and executed. There are many partially finished houses where work has stopped for some time. Instead of borrowing everything up front and being saddled with debt and interest, many Haitians build in stages as they earn the money. In the absence of zoning, building codes, and other such impositions on freedom you can build what you want here. On result is some of the most unusual and innovative uses of concrete found anywhere.

Busy Streets
Decorative but functional steelwork is a noticeable architectural feature. Elaborate grillwork often covers windows and yards are often enclosed by high stone walls with massive steel gates. Artisans working in open air sidewalk workshops fabricate the steelwork and every piece is a one off original. Though white and even unpainted buildings predominate brightly colored ones are common among them, blossoms in a concrete jungle.

The streets of Port-au-Prince are jammed with traffic, crowded with pedestrians and bustling with commercial activity. Though unemployment is high everybody works and panhandlers are unseen. Much of the economy is transacted on the streets. Sidewalk vendors sell produce, refreshments, clothes, art, crafts, and even furniture. Artists and craftspeople not only sell but often produce their products on the streetside.

Trash is everywhere but the people themselves are cleanly dressed and malnutrition is not apparent. Spotlessly dressed schoolchildren in their school uniforms are a common sight. Brightly dressed women carrying elegantly balanced loads on their heads are everywhere. Here and there one sees donkeys bringing produce from the countryside.


Street Scenes

Courteous Drivers
Traffic engineering is unheard of, traffic lights nonexistent. Throngs of pedestrians mix freely with busy vehicular traffic but it all seems to somehow work. Traffic does slow to a crawl at rush hours but that is not remarkable. Haitians are exceptionally courteous, patient and skilled drivers. Horns are seldom used and then only as a brief beep to draw attention never a drawn out demanding HONK! The drivers have a very good sense and feel for their vehicles and routinely squeeze through seemingly impossible spaces

Public transport is served by the ubiquitous taptaps. Privately owned trucks, mini-buses, and vans fitted out to carry passengers. Taptaps are elaborately painted with brightly colored intricate designs. Commonly the design incorporates a conspicuous slogan. This is often of a religious nature as if their destination was The Pearly Gates.

Haiti is Wired
 
Literally speaking Haiti is the most wired place I have ever seen. Wires are everywhere. Power and phone lines are above ground and utility poles are festooned with Gorgon's head tangles of wires. In addition to those actually in use there are often various loose ends where old lines have been clipped off a few feet from the pole. Sometimes old ones appear to be just left in place for one also sees sagging lines with tattered insulation paralleled by shiny new ones. Haiti is also wired in the modern colloquial sense. Internet service is available and my brief impression was that it was not significantly slower than in the U.S. Getting connected in peak hours may be a bit better.

The Soul of an Artist
Art is in the soul of Haiti. Sidewalk vendors sell paintings much as magazines and newspapers are sold elsewhere. Middle class homes are decorated with original art. Upmarket galleries feature a broad selection of high quality art. While the naive style is strongly associated with Haitian art contemporary artists encompass a broad spectrum of other styles.

In Port-au-Prince my wife Meredith and I visited a number of galleries and craft centers. The quality, diversity and originality of the art was impressive. Equally impressive was its affordability. Beautiful paintings can be bought for fifty to a few hundred U.S. dollars. Works by top contemporary artists with an international reputation can be purchased in the range from five hundred to several thousand dollars. Classical works by artists no longer living have, of course, moved into the realm of collectors and can sell for many thousands (see Footnote 1).

Images of some of the pieces which caught my eye are featured in the Arts and Crafts/Mini-Gallery section of this website.

The best galleries in Port-au-Prince are in the suburb of Pétionville at the base of the mountains to the S.E. of the city. Although primarily a residential area with many elegant homes exclusivity stops at the high walls which surround them. Amidst the homes are a variety of small businesses and the streets and sidewalks are bustling with vendors every sort. Tropical foliage lines the streets. Many are enveloped in a blaze of bougainvillea which litter streets and sidewalks with fluorescent petals (see Footnote 2).

A Drive in the Mountains
One day we took a drive up the steep winding road into the mountains. Residences and shops continued up the steep slopes and on into the mountains. Estates of the wealthy, middle class homes and the simple cottages of peasants shared neighborhood with egalitarian unconcern. At the top an overlook provided a panorama of city, sea and mountains. No tall buildings punctuated the ripple of roofs. The gleaming presidential palace surrounded by green lawns was the centerpiece of the city.

Continuing inland we enjoyed the cool mountain air. We stopped at a complex of shops run by a Baptist mission. Their effort was impressive. It included school, church, hospital, farm, shops, workshops and a large plant nursery involved with reforestation. The shops offered good quality farm produce and crafts at good prices. As a connoisseur of junk food I can recommend the hamburgers in their lunch room. We bought an elaborately carved chair for $25 U.S. A few weeks later in Washington D.C. we saw a very similar piece on special at $450 marked down from $750.

The mission maintained a small museum of Haitian ethnography. An exhibit on "voodoo" had this sign:

It's interesting how opinions so often seem to reveal more of truth about their source than about their subject.

Haiti by Helicopter
While in Haiti I was afforded the opportunity to take two extended helicopter rides which crossed the country from north to south and covered about three quarters of the coastline. From the air the pressure of population was obvious. In the countryside every possible bit of land was cleared and used for agriculture or grazing. Signs of habitation were everywhere. Houses and farms cling to steep mountain sides and perch atop the crest of high narrow ridges. Though vegetation is generally sparse houses are almost always surrounded by palms, bananas, mangos and other fruit and shade trees.

Though my own taste runs more to wilderness than to people and despite the deforestation and severe erosion I could not help but find a certain appeal in the Haitian landscape. The mountains with little farms and houses scattered across them possess a definite storybook quality. Combined with the friendliness and generosity of the people and their unique culture the result is a charm, a magic if you wish, which makes one see the beauty more so than the problems.

Magic and Mystery
One memorable image is of a white cottage surrounded by a few trees perched atop a mountain perhaps 5,000 feet above sea level. Dark thunderclouds drifted about it. I wondered who lived there. What would be the story of their life? Somehow it seemed to symbolize the mystery that is Haiti. That fleeting glimpse from a roaring helicopter also seemed symbolic of our own blind rush into a future of ever increasing artificial complexity beyond our ability to understand or control.

The coastal scenery is varied. In the south there are long expanses of ironshore, low sea cliffs, sharp, rocky, and exposed to pounding waves. Poor soil and little water make such coast sparsely inhabited but goats and cattle graze the sparse vegetation. There are numerous beaches all around the coast. Some are outstanding. Anywhere else they would be swarming with tourists. Here they are empty save for occasional fishing villages with log canoes pulled up on the sand and sailboats at anchor just offshore.

While marine activity is not intense, right around the coast I saw scattered boats fishing, anchored, or underway. Except for ships in ports everything was powered by sail or paddle and was constructed of wood. The age of sail lives on in Haiti.

A Varied Terrain
Here and there we passed mangrove estuaries with intricate patterns of waterways. Scattered along the coasts superb protected bays intruded into the hills. Some of the best harbors in the Caribbean, totally unused. Where rivers and streams entered the sea turbidity from erosion was obvious but in several areas I saw the luminous blues of clear oceanic water right at the shore. A sharp edge between the rich indigo of the deep sea and the lighter blues of the shallows indicated underwater cliffs and the potential of exciting scuba diving.

In places the land became suddenly lush and verdant. These well watered alluvial plains support intense agriculture. At the opposite extreme is the barren desert terrain of the far northwest coast. Terraced rocky hills, red dirt and scattered cacti and thorny bushes edging a blue blue sea reminded one of parts of Baja California. At river mouths and along streams women washing clothes often appeared. From the amount spread out to dry it would seem there is no shortage of clothes and sheets in rural Haiti.


Washday at a River Mouth


Faces of Haiti


Footnotes
1 After creating a body of work and establishing a reputation the best career move for artists seems to be dying. If one is collecting art for investment, as opposed to purely esthetic purposes, it is best to buy the work of established contemporaries who are much older than you are. Those with serious health problems are an especially good investment. Return

2 I recently read an item in The Economist regarding the burying of garbage in landfills resulting in anaerobic decomposition and toxins leaching into underground water supplies. The cost of cleaning these up in the future was expected to be enormous. It concluded that from an environmental standpoint it would be better to just throw our trash on the ground where exposure to air and UV results in a faster, more benign breakdown. Maybe the trash on the streets of Port-au-Prince isn't as bad as it looks. Perhaps it is we who need to re-adjust our esthetic sensitivities. Making all our packaging fluorescent magenta and salmon pink like bouganvillea petals might help. They look really nice on the street. Return

Haiti Main Page