Haiti often gets a bad rap. The news mostly portrays Haiti as an impoverished, dangerous place, always at risk of political instability. Truthfully, it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and its endemic poverty can be heart-breaking for visitors, as it should be. And there has been a lot of political instability in the past, with a quick succession of leaders both elected and unelected taking over in past years.
However, I am not writing this to tell you why you shouldn’t go to Haiti but rather, why you should.Haiti is first of all an adventure in itself. One which not many people go on, so you will be one of a kind.
Port-Au-Prince is hectic, but vibrant as well. It is home to some excellent examples of “gingerbread architecture”, beautiful old homes with the lattice-work roofs that give it its name. Unfortunately, a lot of these were destroyed in the recent earthquake. This is itself another reason to visit the capital, to see and understand first hand the destruction. Port-Au-Prince is not my favorite place but I look forward to spending time there to access some of the comforts of home.
But what I really love about Haiti is outside of the city….
First of all, transportation. Whizzing around on the back of a motorcycle taxi is the freest feelingin the world. Though admittedly not the safest. Or for transport you can take a tap-tap or a machin and watch as the vehicle you are in is loaded with people, live chickens, bags of rice, and whatever other item passengers need to bring with them.
Cuisine. I’ve come to believe that the only way to eat a lobster is on a beach. Why sit in a nice restaurant and deal with all that mess? In Haiti you can sit at a table on the beach and eat a grilled lobster for $10. Now, Caribbean lobsters aren’t like Atlantic ones. They don’t have the big claws we are used to seeing. But on a beach watching the sunset with an ice cold Prestige (the excellent national beer of Haiti) in your hand, it tastes just as sweet.
Food in general in Haiti is excellent. The national dish is rice and beans, an important staple food for locals. This can be served with chicken, beef, goat, or griyo (spicy fried pork). You can also find some amazing tropical fruits; during mango season the population pretty much gorges on them. Once some children offered me a mango. When I awkwardly tried to eat it without a knife to cut into, they asked me “Don’t you know how to eat a mango?” as if I were crazy for not biting right into it.
Environment. Haiti can be a beautiful, lush land. There is a Haitian saying that directly translated means “Beyond the mountains, there are mountains” and this describes Haiti well. You can hike in the hillsides and get exercise as well as take in the beautiful views. And there are some excellent beaches here. It is the Caribbean after all, with its gorgeous sunshine and temperatures which average in the 70s in the winter.
People. Haitian people are some of the friendliest in the world. Once I was walking along the beach when it started pouring rain. A women came out of her house and beckoned for me to come inside, and stay out of the rain. I am pretty sure that would never happen to me in London or New York. Also, don’t be surprised if someone stops their motorcycle and asks you if you want a woulib, or a “free ride” to get you where you are going faster. Children, mistakenly believing I am a Spanish speaker, yell amigo at me daily, waving and smiling.
As far as danger, I have never once felt afraid here. And in fact, there is less per capita crime in Haiti than there are in many other countries.
Tourism, especially responsible tourism, will help Haiti. Every time you buy a meal or a bar of soap that money goes back into the country. So, spend money there, give someone a job and a livelihood. Eat at small, family run restaurants. Buy way too many souvenirs of paintings and intricate metal works. Take a local taxi. Find a local guide to take you around. In short, give the locals any reason or way to earn a living. Learn about a new culture and have the time of your life and help out a beautiful country desperate for it.