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My wife’s not nuts, i’m reasonably sure, although you might have disagreed a few days ago, hearing her ask, would I please take her back to the Caribbean island that Herbert Gold has affectionately described as the best nightmare on earth? Haiti is probably not where your spouse wants to be whisked off to on a holiday. “U.S. citizens are warned,” says the State Department’s most recent travel advisory, “to defer travel to Haiti until the situation stabilizes.” Hmmm … and when would that be, fellas? The “situation” in Haiti—political mayhem, crushing poverty, ecological ruin, international peacekeepers, well-armed street gangs—is a quasi-permanent feature of the place, yet as much as instability seems part of its national DNA, Haiti is an extraordinary and unforgettable destination, intense and sexy if not quite romantic, a sensory cocktail of jarring extremes.
Friends and sometimes strangers constantly ask if I’ll take them to Haiti the next time I go, and I sympathize with the spell that seems to grip them, because Haiti has an unmistakable allure, derived in part from Hollywood, Africa, voodoo, music and literature, cruelty, the primitive colors and rhythms of its folk culture, and the postapocalyptic future. Both the idea of Haiti and the place itself are mesmerizing in a sort of catastrophic way, a paradisiacal train wreck upon which has descended a fertile sense of mellow surreality.
How dangerous is it? Not very, actually. I know an editor at Viking, a single female, speaks a little Creole, who loves mountain-biking in the rugged north. Periodic eruptions of violence are, in Pentagon-speak, Haitian-on-Haitian and rarely, if ever, directed at blancs—whites or foreigners. Bogeymen abound, but I’ve never found Haiti to be a place where I needed to watch my back with any more vigilance than elsewhere in the hazardous world. Kids brandishing guns or machetes at roadblocks can, you bet, jangle the nerves, but the shakedown commonly ends with smiles and handshakes and the donation of a few bucks to the cause du jour. Stay away from demonstrations, know that it’s not cool to wander around slums like Cité Soleil, don’t travel outside the cities after dark—if you need to be told such things, you’re probably going to Haiti for a reason I wouldn’t begin to understand.
The indices of Haitian suffering are legion and legendary, precisely the reason Haiti’s tourism bureau echoes with futility. Still, I don’t think I really have to tell you that Haiti is wildly interesting, a source of endless fascination, and unexpectedly welcoming. Haitians are by and large lovely people, disarmingly sweet and gentle and hardworking, blessed with an earthy good humor and bursting with wit and creativity. Plenty of New Yorkers fly down regularly to Port-au-Prince to sweep out its art galleries with a broom of dollar bills. They stay far above the city in the elegant, airy Hotel Montana, impossible to book during the high season—coups d’état or invasions—when it’s packed with journalists or dudes in suits and sunglasses. Or they bunk downtown in the shadowy bohemian interiors of the Hotel Oloffson, made famous by Graham Greene in The Comedians and by The New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, who modeled his trademark haunted houses on the Oloffson’s tropo-Gothic gingerbread façade. For my money, the Oloffson’s veranda is the supreme hangout in Haiti, the prime venue to eavesdrop on incomprehensible intrigues, slam rum sours with disoriented celebrities, or hunker down when there’s gunplay a few blocks over at the National Palace.
As for fine dining, if you can tune out the moral dissonance in a country where most people are malnourished, the restaurants of PÃ©tionville, the up-mountain, upscale suburb of Haiti’s filthy-rich elite, serve the best French wines to wash down displays of gastronomic artistry more commonly attributed to the chefs of New Orleans and Paris. And because Haiti’s one of the world’s poorest nations, everything’s dirt cheap, right? Wrong. When an economy goes down, prices head in the opposite direction, so a sojourn in Haiti is not inexpensive, although you can be assured that every nickel you spend there will be bathed in appreciation.
Sandwiched between Cuba and Puerto Rico, the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, is, despite its environmental scars, staggeringly beautiful. Named by the native Arawak Indians who once lived there, Haiti means “land of mountains,” and its sheer peaks rise thousands of feet straight out of the ocean.
Myself, I like to head north through a haze of sea breeze and wood smoke, past the empty beaches of the Côte des Arcadins and the shuttered Club Med, past the sleepy mud-and-wattle villages and the muraled walls of the voodoo temples spread throughout the coastal plains and the ever-present thunder of ceremonial drums, into the spectacular mountains. Up north you can still find jungled slopes and clear topaz rivers, and outside of Cap Haitien, you can hike to a summit capped by the ruins of King Henri Christophe’s Citadel, one of the great architectural wonders of the New World.
Is it worth it? That question, of course, haunts any sane and decent person traveling to a country that people are dying, literally, to leave, yet the answer is absolutely. In Haiti, at the very least, the difference between dancing on the edge and dancing over it is one you learn to appreciate.
Pétionville’s La Souvenance (509-257-4813) serves haute French fare like chicken-liver mousse with port wine and Chateaubriand with bone-marrow sauce. The Hotel Montana (509-229-4000; htmontana.com; from $108); Hotel Oloffson (509-223-4000; from $79).