We have all heard the stories: voodoo, earthquakes, kidnappings, disease and poverty. This article is not about any of that. This article is about the other side of Haiti. The hopeful side. The side of Haiti that goes unreported.
Time has come for a different narrative, a perspective that doesn't deny the very real things that blights this country but that gives a brighter image of this Caribbean nation. An image of hope rather than despair.
I want my experience in this country and with its people to inspire you to take a chance. A chance on visiting a country that needs you. A country that will both inspire and force you to stop and reflect.
When I told people I was off to Haiti for a few days they looked at me dumbfounded. Haiti. Why? Why indeed. I did my research and found that the country is inundated with people inspired to help; doctors, volunteers, UN soldiers and good Samaritans abound. I am none of these. But I still wanted to be of service in my own small way.
I have travelled extensively across the globe. And Haiti has been one of those missing pieces in my globetrotting jigsaw. I wanted that to change. So I took a leap of faith.
The truth is that Haiti is not for everyone. What destination is? If you have an adventurous spirit and a thirst for traveling off the beaten path then Haiti can most certainly be for you.
As I touched down on the tarmac from the early morning Miami flight the heat of Port Au Prince clenched at my throat. I had arranged to be met by a local guide who would take me around. Francois was a gentle fellow, proud to be showing a foreigner his homeland.
We had a plane to catch to Cap Hatien the northernmost city, where the majority of my stay would unfold, but I wanted to take in the sites and sounds of Port Au Prince. I admit to feeling some tension. The warnings about the capital are not easy to digest.
As we drove through the streets we made a brief stop at the presidential palace destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. I felt a shiver through my soul. Haitians are used to tragedy on a biblical scale. Westerners such as myself, not as much.
We completed our day trip in Port Au Prince and I found myself in a small propeller plane. I prayed. For 22 minutes. That seemed to do the trick. We arrived safely in Cap Hatien as the sun started its descent beyond the nearby mountains. This northern city has a different feel to the hustle and bustle of Port Au Prince. A calmer one. I felt relaxed and the tension of the early morning dissipated.
I was looking forward to my few days of exploration....
As morning broke, we found our way up to the town of Milo, which is home to two UNESCO Heritage sites: The Citadel Henry and the Sans Souci Palace. Both built by the only King of Haiti in the early 1800's. There is only one word to describe the Citadel. Spectacular. It rises majestically above the mountains and the clouds that cover them; its imposing walls a reminder of the ingenuity of the human spirit.
To reach the Citadel one has to take a small mountain road with the help of a rather malnourished looking horse. This part of the experience is fascinating as you find your way through local communities. Smiling children running around barefoot. Women washing clothes. And of course the hawkers. It brings you back to nature. The simplicity of life. It connects you with the real Haiti; a rich mosaic created through its people.
Once you reach the top, the citadel beckons and there are sweeping views of the valley below.
The descent back to Milo and the memory of the Citadel still fresh in my mind it was time for a guided tour of the colonial town of Cap Hatien. If I was expecting a clean and sterile city, I was to be mistaken. Cap Hatien is not clean. It is not sterile. It does however have its charms. The local markets are certainly a site to behold. People selling. Buying. It's all happening. If you are expecting your local grocery section at Wal-Mart then think again. It's manic. A mass of humanity heaving and weaving their way through their daily lives. The colonial architecture is also a captivating aspect of the city. I must say it's a bit run down but you can easily envisage its glory days.
Then it was off to the beaches.
Haiti really does have some delightful beaches. So much so that Royal Caribbean have leased their own private beach called Labadie. There are many more near the city of Cap Hatien to enjoy as well. Beaches that rival any other Caribbean nation has to offer.
You see there is an alternative way to help Haiti. A way that serves two purposes, opening up this country and yourself. You haven't heard this about Haiti, but when I think about the country I think about the following: happy memores, unique destinations, friendly locals and an ever-attentive sun.