Haiti: A kind of magic

Haiti has a sparkle that sets it apart from the rest of the Caribbean. And despite its turbulent history, the islanders have endured the test of time with a traditional way of life, Vodou rituals and a sanguine spirit

By Emma Thomson
Published 18 May 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:15 BST

Krik! In Haiti the word announces the start of a tale, but the storyteller can't continue until the audience replies 'krak!' What's that I hear you say? 'Krak?' Well, let me begin…

The night is as dark and warm as black velvet. Arriving outside a partially built house, we skirt down a side alley and enter a building at the back. Paper chains and tinsel hang from the ceiling and on the floor sits a single white candle, illuminating vévé (magic symbols) scratched into the dirt with white chalk. We've come to meet a mambo (priestess of the Haitian religion Vodou).

Thirty-two-year-old Mafoune has a vodka bottle hooked under her arm and a fat, unlit cigar in hand. Surrounded by dancing women, she spins faster and faster to the beat of a drum being pounded somewhere in the shadows. Her eyes are half-hooded and sweat dribbles from beneath her wicker sun hat and her white silk dress.

"She's possessed with the male spirit of Gean-Laurant — one of 21 that come to her in a trance," explains our translator.

"I'd find it easy to get into a trance too after half a bottle of vodka," quips one of the group. We're all a bit cynical.

The dancing intensifies and then Mafoune beckons me into her office. I enter the small, cement-walled room to see her face under-lit by a single candle. By its feeble flame, I can make out a coffin dug into the floor, a small chair bound with a frenzy of rope, and a snapped-off wrought iron cross pilfered from a cemetery. A two-year-old girl stands between Mafoune's legs casually wielding a nine-inch dagger. There are no open-ended, fortune-teller statements or pauses waiting for my reaction; she delivers my fate matter-of-factly: "You will have twins next year: a boy and girl and the girl will come out first." Now she's the one laughing, not me.

Most things in Haiti are imbibed with a little magic, and it's this sparkle that sets it apart from the rest of the Caribbean. However, some days its people must wonder if the country itself isn't the victim of a Vodou curse. On Christmas Day 1492, Christopher Columbus accidentally ran the Santa Maria aground near modern-day Limonade. He staggered ashore and was greeted by the raven-haired Taíno people, decorated with shells — and gold. While they called the island Ayiti, meaning 'high mountains', Columbus promptly renamed it Hispaniola and returned a year later bringing smallpox, typhus and taxes. Within 30 years, 90% of the Taíno population was dead. The Spanish moved in and tussled with the French over land rights, while visitors such as Francis Drake and Welshman Henry Morgan — of Captain Morgan rum fame — established a base on the nearby island of Tortuga and made a fortune looting passing ships. Eventually, the 1697 Treaty of Rijswijk divided the Hispaniola in half: the French keeping the west and naming it Saint-Domingue (later to become Haiti) and the Spanish retaining the east, the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, slaves were shipped over from Benin, Senegal, Togo and the Congo to work on the sugar plantations.

Inspired by the French Revolution and over 300 years of repression, former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture led the first successful slave revolt against a European superpower and in 1804 Haiti became the world's first independent black state. Humiliated, France demanded compensation for the loss of its colony to the tune of 150 million francs — the equivalent of £14.73bn today — and Haiti began its long struggle with debt. The nation's purse was emptied further under the corrupt presidential rule of François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc', in the 1970s and '80s. Then, on 12 January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Léogâne — 25 miles west of Port-au-Prince — reducing the capital to rubble, claiming 200,000 lives and displacing an estimated 1.5 million people from their homes. A cholera outbreak followed, after being mistakenly introduced by United Nations soldiers. Goodness knows, Haiti has needed a little magic of late.

But Haitians have hope: they are faith-full. It's emblazoned across the tap taps (pimped-out Toyota trucks) honking their horns as we drive through the northernmost city of Cap-Haïtien: Merci Dieu ('Thank God'), Dieu est Tout ('God is Everything'), and Dieu Avant Tout ('God Before All').

Once described as the 'Paris of the Antilles', Cap-Haïtien's charm still shines through the jostle of raw concrete, candy-coloured paint and crumbling balconies. Built in 1670 for 10,000 people, today there are close to a quarter of a million and the streets are a riot of motorbikes, poster-plastered walls and stands selling everything from car parts to wigs. Schoolgirls in crisp white shirts and socks tiptoe around litter on their way to school and I can't help giggling at the hand-painted shop signs advertising the Anti-Stress Liquor Store, Patience Bank (lottery stands), and Conscience Garage. Everywhere, private moments are being played out in public: a man changing his trousers on the pavement, another washing from an exposed pipe, and a mother helping her son with his school homework amid the rubble of an open rooftop. Men play dominoes — the loser with pegs pinching his chin and cheeks — and kids peek through holes in the UN compound gate.

Hilltop fortress

Forty minutes south of the city, crowning the town of Milot, the country's star attraction — the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Citadelle Laferrière — perches atop a 3,000ft emerald mountain. Below it sits the russet-stone ruins of Sans-Souci Palace, which was built for Haiti's first monarch, King Henri Christophe, after the slave revolt, and was once nicknamed the 'Versailles of the Caribbean' on account of features such as stepped gardens studded with fountains and a sweeping, baroque staircase. Two months after suffering a stroke, Christophe shot himself dead with a silver bullet inside the palace. Rumour has it his body was secretly hidden inside the citadel. We drive further up the hill to investigate.

"Horse or rhino?" jokes our Haitian tour guide, Jane Wynne, pointing to the quad bikes and horses tethered at the base of the steep trail. I plump for four legs and horse-handler Friedrich Petit-Frère helps me onto the saddle. He's 14 and already speaks three languages. We clip-clop up the stone path until the looming grey mass comes into view. With walls 16ft thick, it'd give any advancing army the willies. And yet it was barely used. Rusting cannonballs sit stacked in the courtyard and almighty cannons point from the windows, waiting for invaders that will never come.

"Come and see this," beckons the citadel guide. We leave the group and descend slippery moss-covered steps to the blackened corpse of the gunpowder storeroom. It exploded in 1818 killing Christophe's brother-in-law, the governor — all that was left to identify him was his left leg and boot. The smell of sulphur still permeates the rubble-floored room.

It's getting late, so we retreat down the hill for lunch. The restaurant lays on a spread of homegrown plantain, avocados and chicken. "They cut its neck this morning!" beams our driver, Galvert. After a few mouthfuls, I stop. "What's that?" I ask. I can hear drums in the distance. "It's a sodo — where we give offerings to the tree spirits," says Galvert. "I knew one local, Rony, who used to steal cans of soda [given as offerings], but one day he was dragged into the tree. We all tried to pull him out, but nobody could free his arm until they started beating the drums to appease the spirits." Galvert's eyes grow wide with fear at the thought.

After lunch, we travel south towards the cacophonous capital of Port-au-Prince. It creeps into being: growing from a scattering of tarpaulin shacks to the broad boulevards encircling the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, where the remains of Haiti's founding fathers — L'Ouverture, Christophe and Dessalines — are interred. Museum guide Vénol Resius tells a wonderful story as we stroll past the gilded swords, pocket watches and letters belonging to the great men. "Have you eaten pumpkin soup here yet?" he asks me. I shoot him a bemused look. "During 300 years of slavery, pumpkin soup was only ever supped by white people. When we won independence, everyone made huge pots of it and even now the 'soup of freedom' is cooked every 1 January."

Pumpkin soup wasn't the only thing denied to slaves. Their owners banned the religion of Vodou, so its practitioners were forced to disguise their lwa (spirits) as Roman Catholic saints — which is why Ezili looks like the Virgin Mary and Legba bears an uncanny resemblance to St Peter.

We bundle back into the minibus and weave between the stall-lined streets towards the distinctive red iron arches of the Marché en Fer, where Vodou trinkets are for sale out in the open. Panels of cloth, bejewelled with sequinned saints and spirits, hang from the rafters and Vodou figurines assembled from the severed heads and limbs of Tiny Tears dolls — their cloth bodies pierced with rusty pins — stare back at me unnervingly. We pass plastic washing-up bowls filled with floundering terrapins. "Are they kept as pets?" I ask the stallholder. She smirks and replies, in French, "When we're pregnant, we spill their blood to have a healthy baby." It's all strangely bewitching. I raise my camera to take a photo, but am met with angry, wagging fingers and disapproving clicks of the tongue.

Meeting the people

We press on further south, past the arty town of Jacmel — dubbed 'Little New Orleans', thanks to its pastel-coloured French colonial architecture — to Bassin Bleu, a trio of waterfalls. At the head of the trail, a huddle of men have gathered; they're placing bets on a pair of taloned fighting cockerels. Two of them break away and offer to lead us to the falls. I've barely covered 10 metres before Antoine makes his move. "You have boyfriend?" he asks. "Yes," I reply. "You leave him and marry me!" he beams, revealing his toothless gums. Like a true gent, he offers a steadying hand as I gingerly hop from rock to rock across a shallow, rushing river and over tree roots, past the two lower pools, until we emerge at the final obstacle: a sheer rock face that drops 30ft and grants access to Bassin Clair — the waterfall we've come for. I kick off my shoes, grasp the rope tethered at the top and I lever myself down; jamming my bare toes into the rock's nooks and crannies. The stones below are slick with water and weed and I clamber across them until I find it: a cobalt-blue pool and gushing waterfall completely encircled by sheer cliffs. Butterflies dance in and out of beams of light streaming from the forest above. I strip off my shorts and T-shirt and leap off a boulder into the belly button of water and swim towards the waterfall until its mass is pummelling my shoulders.

Locals are paddling too. I get talking to Jean. Born in Jacmel, he now lives in Germany. I explain the photo incident at the market. "There's a culture of the NGO now," he says — referring to the many overseas aid organisations active in Haiti. "People assume you're going to use their photos to show how poor they are."

I towel off and seek out Jane. "Our radio stations have a tendency to be against foreigners, and Haitians listen to the radio all day long," she explains. "Tourists should have an encounter with people, not just pass them by — talk to people [looking] in their eyes."

I take her advice, and sign up to join Expedition Ayiti, a grassroots organisation that leads hikes through the little-visited Central Plateau to 'introduce visitors to the hidden face of Haiti'. After clambering into a minivan with its founders, Haitian Gerald Joseph and American Austin Taylor, we shake, rattle and roll over the potholed dirt roads towards the town of Pignon, arriving just as dusk is falling. We pull up outside Gerald's home and follow him through the yard, past a pair of ducks chastising chickens, into the spare room we'll be sleeping in. He brings a shallow tin bowl, "to pee in overnight". Over a dinner of chicken, cold pasta salad, beetroots and pikliz (a local spicy coleslaw), Gerald explains that 80% of hikers' fees are directed to host communities and, once the cost of food is deducted, the rest is put towards a project of the community's choosing such as digging latrines, buying livestock, planting trees or paying for children to go to school. While nibbling a chicken leg, he continues: "Most who come to Haiti stay in nice hotels, lounge on our beaches, and go home without really understanding our country. We believe we have a good image to show visitors. Families give you a bed, cook you the best food they have — we can show the hospitality of our people. And in return, you bring opportunity."

We rise early, pull on our boots and set off west, keeping Mount Pignon — more of a lopsided boulder — in our sights. We overtake locals guiding their laden donkeys to town and cross the Bouyaha River, where men wash their bodies and women wash their whites, until we reach the home of our host, Pastor Hones Declerus, in Lamarre. He greets Austin warmly: "How is your father, mother, brother?" School has just broken up and — wishing to give us more space — Hones has set up a camp bed in each of the classrooms. French posters of the skeleton and digestive system hang above my mattress.

On our second day, we only have to cover six miles and reach Gran Latanye and the marine-blue house of Lormeus Clotére, our next host, by lunchtime. I spend the afternoon learning to play dominoes and watching his nieces take turns braiding each other's hair. Occasionally, a villager wanders in and pushes a crumpled note into Lormeus' hand in return for a cold Prestige beer or the chance to charge their phone. When darkness falls, the obligatory 'pee pee' bucket is pressed into my hands and I lie on my bed watching the occasional cockroach scuttle across the wall.

On the last day, we're met by 60-year-old father of eight, Charles Gerbeir, who's risen at 4am and walked 12 miles so he could accompany us over the mountains to his village of Ran. We follow him through head-height flaxen grasses, past goats bleating 'mère, mère' ('mother, mother'), and pause on the cusp of the mountain to enjoy the cool wind — sweet as iced water — and then down to his cement house, which stands in the shadow of a red Digicel telecommunications tower. Spiders have spun candyfloss webs on his cacti fences. He takes care of the compound in return for a small wage, but survives mostly from what he gleans from his garden — filled with crops and roly-poly pigs.

It's time to return to Cap-Haïtien. This time, I glimpse the lofty Citadelle from the inside of a tap tap, whose floor plate is missing, Flintstones-style. Chickens, strung up like streamers, dangle from the sides of our truck, which is crammed with locals. We all watch as the fort flashes in and out of view, partially obscured by palm trees. And it suddenly strikes me: I'm part of the group, no longer just an observer. The bubble has been burst. Staying in the homes of locals strips away the security blanket, and the feeling is rather magical.

Speaking of magic, as I start my journey home, I can't help but think about Mafoune's bizarre Vodou prediction. Did it come true? Well, that's another story… Krik!


Getting there
There are no direct flights between the UK and Haiti. American Airlines flies daily from Heathrow to Miami and from there to Cap-Haïtien. A $10 (£7) tourist tax is payable on arrival.
Average flight time: 13h 30m (with a two-hour stopover).

Getting around
Local airlines Tortug'Air and Salsa d'Haïti run multiple daily flights between Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien (Tortug'Air also flies to Jérémie). For remoter towns, such as Pignon, the Mission Aviation Fellowship runs light aircraft services. Most major car hire companies have depots in Port-au-Prince, but beware: rates are steep and traffic is frequently chaotic. Basic buses (known as 'tap taps') connect most towns.

When to go
Haiti's hot, humid, tropical climate averages 27C. The two rainy seasons are April–June and October-November. July–October is hurricane season.

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens don't require a visa for stays under 90 days.
Currency: Haitian gourde (HTG).
£1 = 83 HTG.
Health: Ask your GP about vaccinations and antimalarials. Dengue fever is a problem and outbreaks of cholera persist, so wash hands and use disinfectant gel.
International dial code: 00 509.
Time: GMT -5.

More info
Haiti, by Paul Clammer. RRP: £16.99 (Bradt Travel Guides).
Haitian Tourist Board.
Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti, by Ian Thomson. RRP: £12.99 (Vintage).
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by CLR James. RRP: £14.99 (Penguin History).
God Loves Haiti, by Dimitry Elias Léger. RRP: £14.18 (Amistad).
Krik? Krak!, by Edwidge Danticat. RRP: £10.59 (Soho Press).

How to do it
Exodus offer a 13-day Haiti Revealed trip that includes visits to the Citadelle Laferrière, Sans-Souci Palace, Port-au-Prince and Jacmel from £2,699 per person, including flights.
Expedition Ayiti is a local company that offers seven-day hikes through the Central Plateau from £900 per person, including accommodation, meals, ground transport and a guide.

Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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