Looking back fifteen years or so, I regarded Haiti as an extreme which people did not dare visit. I had the image that if I walked down the street someone would come along and lop off my arm with a machete. I wondered if visitors could go out without armed support. Somehow I felt that if I could manage a trip to Haiti, I could deal with many of the life problems which would, sooner or later, come my way.
I also imagined the place was full of lush trees, which is the direct opposite of the reality.
I set off in (I think) 1993. The place was popular as late as the 1970s, but by then hardly any Caribbean guidebooks covered Haiti at all. My friend Christopher Weber, the investment writer, ended up coming with me at the last minute, maybe as more of a dare than anything else. Plus he had the longtime dream of visiting the remote Haitian city of Jeremie, because of its association with the family background of Alexander Dumas.
Upon arriving, I realized the country was relatively peaceful, provided you were not there in times of elections, coups, or demonstrations. The terrain is so crowded, and white people are so conspicuous, it is (was) hard to get into trouble. Plus Haitian crowds are known to knock down and kill petty thieves on the spot. There's just not enough room for anyone to mug you, at least if you exercise due caution. Nor, for that matter, were there very many beggars, since usually there was no one to beg from.
Despite oppressive poverty (other than India, I've never seen anything comparable), there's simply a remarkable feeling there and most visitors to Haiti end up sharing this understanding with other Haitiphiles. I've long wished I could explain this. I've since been five times, though never to the north. I also started collecting Haitian art and reading everything I could about the country and going to Haitian concerts.
For the last ten years I've been afraid to go, mostly because kidnappings started on some of the roads. Finally, it seemed safe enough and the economy was improving. Over last weekend, in Miami, Natasha, Yana and I drove around Little Haiti, ate a wonderful meal, and bought some Haitian gospel and compa CDs, which served as the soundtrack for the rest of the day in the car. I was all set to plan my next trip back.
Neither Chris nor I ever made it to Jeremie.