IN HAITI, I recently saw a tow car yank a Ford off its chassis and tow the body on to the garage, unaware that most of the car hadn’t moved. In a small coastal town, I saw a hotelkeeper peer unashamedly into the market bag of a rival innkeeper in order to measure the competition before buying. In its volatile political campaigns, black skin is so much of an asset that a recent candidate for president accused an opponent of being a white man who was passing. Here a first-rate planter s punch is obtainable for a nickel; a good filet mignon can be bought In a restaurant for fifty cents; hotel accommodations, including toothpaste and postage stamps, can be had for two dollars a day; and the company of some of The most charming, gentle, and childlike people in the world can be had for free.
Haiti is a small republic lying just east of Cuba and about four and onehalf flying hours from Miami. In every other respect it is centuries away, and certainly is the most primitive land within easy reach of the United States. Of the twenty-two American countries, Haiti is the second smallest in size, yet it leads all others in density of population. Around 3,000,000 people are crowded together in its 10,700 square miles an area about the size of Vermont. The density of Haiti’s population is greater than that of either China or India, which accounts somewhat for the fact that 90 per cent of the Haitians have annual incomes under twenly dollars.
In all of Haiti there is less than 100 miles of paved roads; there is not a single public water supply system whose water can be drunk without boiling, and few if any covered sewers. It has less than 2000 white people. Idle country’s educational system is sorrv beyond description. Among the peasants, who make up 98 per cent of the population, the accumulation of sufficient money for a wedding ceremony is a hardship. A man and woman start living together and save jointly for the wedding celebration. This institution, known as placage, often permits several children the opportunity of attending their parents’ wedding.
These things probably account for the fact that Haiti is not the slick Caribbean tourist attraction that its neighbors, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, are. But it has strong partisans who return year after year. They like its climate, which varies from the eighties in the winter to the nineties in summer, its incredibly blue sea, its purple mountains, its French flavor, the throb of its drums, and its rum. Independent rum drinkers will tell you Haitian rum is the world’s finest.
There are several ways of getting to Haiti, but the quickest is to fly from Miami. No passports or visas are required. Pan American runs daily flights to Port-au-Prince for $155, tax included, round trip. The landing field is modern and safe, the customs inspection is casual, and there are always taxis at the airport to take visitors to the hotels. Haiti is generally inexpensive, and often downright cheap, but there is one exception: the taxicab. Whenever possible, drivers will charge all they can get.
Port-au-Prince, the capital and only city, is a relatively civilized, shoewearing metropolis of 150,000 people, which begins at the Gulf of Gonave and spreads up the mountainside for several miles. Its streets are narrow and teeming, like most tropical ports, and it’s a strange mixture of the modern and the primitive. Burriques, small burros, struggle with new American automobiles for the right of way in downtown streets, and women bearing heavy loads of vegetables on their heads sometimes jam the sidewalks. Traffic congestion on the Grande Rue, or Rue de Trujillo, or Rue President Pranklin D. Roosevelt (it is the main street and goes by all three names) is indescribable.
There are three very good hotels in Port-au-Prince, the best of which — La Citadelle — would be a good hotel anywhere. Perched on a hillside almost on the outskirts of town, La Citadelle commands a magnificent view of the entire city, and the hills behind the hotel offer walks by day and the sound of drums at night. Rates run around twelve dollars a day, including meals that are planned with an awareness that American stomachs aren’t conditioned to plunge immediately into the more exotic Creole specialties. Fried plantain and mango pie are balanced with steak and potatoes.
The other hotels, the Sans Souci and the Splendide, charge similar rates; although downtown and lacking the view and charm of La Citadelle, both are comfortable and pleasant. The Splendide has a swimming pool for its guests, which is an asset since the city has no beach. Guests at the other hotels use the pool at Club Thorland, which is filled by a stream that rushes down from the mountains. Several new hotels were built for 1950’s ill-fated Bicentenaire, Haiti’s wistful attempt at a world’s fair, which collapsed almost before it started; but unless Haiti gets a totally unexpected tourist boom they aren’t likely to stay open long.
Food in Port-au-Prince is reasonable in price and excellent in quality. There are several showy restaurants as well as a few which appear to be an open invitation to ptomaine, yet whose food is clean and pleasing. One of the latter is Papa Denis’s, a roofless place with a dirt floor, located a few blocks from the President’s Palace. Here you get an unlimited number of Denis’s special cocktails, made of first-run rum the average American would hesitate to use for thinning paint but which tastes delightful when mixed with whatever Denis mixes it with; an eggplant dish cooked with rice and conch; a filet mignon; a bland soup in which a crab is floating; yams and syrup; and a bottle of rum placed on the table for after-dinner drinking. All this comes to about ninety cents.
Port-au-Prince is the center of Haiti’s business world, and most of ts export trade is handled from offices on the Rue de Quai. The most important export item is sisal, a tough vegetable fiber which is woven by the Haitians into a variety of articles from ladies’ purses to furniture, while large quantities of coffee, sugar, bananas, and cocoa are shipped from Port-au-Prince and the other two leading ports, Jacmel on the south coast and Cap Haitien in the north. Haiti is an agricultural country,and a very poor one, so its commercial life could hardly be called brisk. The currency in circulation in all of Haiti totals about three dollars per person.
Haitian currency, incidentally, is simple to handle; the gourde, worth twenty cents, is the basic denomination, and its value is pegged to the dollar. Many shops make change in both U.S. and Haitian currency, mixing dimes and quarters with gourdes.
Port-au-Prince, like all Haiti, is strictly black. Unlike the other Caribbean islands which have large percentages of Negroes, Haiti is 99-plus per cent black. There are very definite social differences based on degree of color, with the light-skinned Haitians traditionally making up the elite, but these arc local distinctions and the visitor would do well to ignore them.
Haiti’s cultural ties are almost exclusively with France, or rather Paris, since the Haitian seems to feel that there is little in France except Paris. Well-to-do Haitian men go off to Paris to school, and any formal party in Portau-Prince will find a good sprinkling of guests wearing original Paris gowns. The language of the upper-class Haitians is French, although everyone in Haiti speaks Creole and the large peasant population speaks nothing but Creole. Most people tend to call Creole a patois, but this is bitterly denied by the Creole scholars, who point out that it is a language in that it has definite rules of grammar, declensions, and rhetoric. Furthermore, Haitian poets and writers are now writing in Creole and this should give it the dignity of a language. Regardless of what it is, Creole has a pleasing sound, is colorful in expression, and a rich vocabulary has grown up around it. Its origin is vague, but it is known to have drawn heavily on certain African languages, as well as on the French dialects of Normandy and Pieardy, with some Spanish and English words added during the years. Knowing French won’t help the % isitor too much with Creole: the French word petit in Creole becomes just ti, and fille fi Thus a small girl is a tifi. This can drive French students crazy.
A word here about voodoo, or vodun as the Haitians call it. Don’t expect to see anything sensational, because it doesn’t exist. There are native religious ceremonies, which make full use of the drums and dancing, but they are far less sensational than a Holy Roller service in Tennessee.
Traveling outside of Port-au-Prince is rewarding but not too easy. Roads are practically nonexistent and bridges are unknown. Buses — trucks with wooden seats built on the deck — manage to crawl through the jungles and over the mountains, but, as the Haitian Tourist Bureau slyly warns, this mode of travel is recommended “for only the most adventurous.”The Haitian Air Force flies passengers around the island, with regularly scheduled flights to the principal towns, and the service is safe and inexpensive. Many an American commercial line could envy the Haitian Air Force’s safety record: over ten years of flying without a fatal accident. This is especially impressive when one recalls that the interior of Haiti is made up of an endless succession of mountain peaks and that an emergency landing would be impossible.
Jacmel, a hot, sun-baked little coffee port on the southern coast, has begun to draw a few visitors, chiefly because the beach at Carrefour Raymond, a few miles east of the town, is the only first-rate beach in Haiti. Haitians are not island people in the same way that South Pacific islanders are, and their intcrest in boats and swimming is about as compelling as that of a Kansan. Thus they see no sense in developing beaches, although they get a lot of fun watching the blancs toast themselves in the sun. This they witness from the shade of the palm trees that line the beach. The Hotel Excelsior, in Jacmel, accommodates visitors at two dollars a day, including everv thing. A more attractive rate is obtainable on a weekly basis.
Cap Haitien, in the north, was formerly cap François, the colonial capital of the country. Here Henri Christophe, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Dessalines led the slaves to rebel against the white plantation owners and set up their own shaky state. Although burned several times, once by Christophc himself. Cap Haitien is easily the most impressive town in Haiti and still retains, quite unselfconsciously, the flavor of the colonial past. Cannon, once turned on Napoleon’s ships, still lie in the streets along the waterfront; and on a mountain! op twenty miles away is the brooding, massive Citadellc Laferriere, built by King Henri Christophc to keep Napoleon out of the city. It takes four hours to climb to (he top of the peak on which The Citadelle is built. but it’s worth it.
A few miles outside of what is now Cap Haitien, an admiral named Christopher Columbus permitted a small ship, the Santa Maria, to run aground on a coral reef. The ship, according to history, broke up, and only its anchor remains to be shown to persons interested in this fifteenth-century nautical disaster.