Last month, my seventeen-year-old daughter, Yasmine, and I took a trip to Haiti. I was born in New York, but my parents are from Haiti and I was eager to visit the country again and to introduce Yasmine to her Haitian roots.
I spent a couple of summers in Haiti as a teenager. First in 1985 when dictator François “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still in power and the country functioned in a kind of sinister calm. I was aware of the repression but was carried aloft by seeing extended family, making new friends and nursing an adolescent crush–generally hanging out in a state of blissful ignorance as teenagers do. I came back in 1988 after Baby Doc had been ousted from power and fled for exile in France. Many of the same people and places that had left such an imprint on me were now battered and bruised; homes looted, persons violated, innocence and livelihoods robbed. Poverty and despair shadowed every corner of the island, but there remained hope that a new leader could lead Haiti out of the rubble.
In 1990, former Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in Haiti’s first free election. A year later, he was overthrown in a military coup. My last trip occurred in 1996, a few years after US troops oversaw the return of Aristide and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence. Foreign aid had become a daily fixture and this reality would only increase after the devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed anywhere from 200,000-300,000 people. For years, I’d expressed an interest in returning to Haiti but was discouraged: too poor, too depressing, too unstable… This time, however, Yasmine’s curiosity and youthful stubbornness overcame any apprehension or resistance. We set off for the island with my father in tow.
Upon landing, I was greeted by a familiar scent–burning wood swirling through the moist, hot air–and it felt like no time had passed at all. The airport was less chaotic than I’d expected and I took in the medley of people who had flown over with us. I saw Haitians, many in their Sunday best, returning home. Clusters of mostly white missionaries in identical tee-shirts wore expressions of purpose as they prepared to build wells or construct houses. Yasmine, my father and I comprised another group: the diaspora, Haitians who had left or been born elsewhere and were now scattered in Brooklyn, Miami, Boston, Atlanta, Paris and, in my case, Stockholm.
Our journey began with a wonderful dinner at my cousin’s home in the mountains. Most of my father’s side of the family had gathered there and I was overjoyed to see their faces and feel the outpouring of positive energy and love. This is a connection I miss living so far away in Sweden, both from my immediate family in New York and my sprawling clan in Haiti. Yasmine had never met most of her cousins, but her immediate bond with them only proved that she felt just as Haitian as she did Swedish.
Haiti is a complex, messy, stunning, contradictory, magical place. Columbus named it Hispaniola after he landed in 1492 and the subsequent cruel introduction of slavery by the Spanish and French permeated every aspect of the island for centuries. It was the first black republic, fighting for and gaining independence from the French in 1804–still the only successful slave revolt in human history. That triumph lingers, but Haiti today is also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The country’s past and current challenges have been well-documented elsewhere, but for me, Haiti is like coming home to a favorite auntie with an abundance of soul, flavor, fire, and passion. She always welcomes me back with open arms and reserves judgment, forgiving the long stretches of time between visits. Everything is heightened in intensity too–the pleasure and the pain; the pride, dignity, and resolve amid the hardship. Yasmine and I absorbed all we could and the snapshots below are our impressions, from where we stood, during our week-long séjour en Ayiti…
We stayed at the Karibe Hotel in Petion-Ville, which provided us with a convenient location between Port-au-Prince, the capital, and the mountains of Kenscoff. Karibe was very nice with attentive staff, beautiful grounds and a delicious rooftop restaurant. I enjoyed sitting in the garden and watching the diverse guests.
The bougainvilleas spilling from the walls and entryways were a welcome pop of color on hazy days or when we sat in rush-hour traffic.
Haitians carrying their wares or selling goods in the open-air markets were a ubiquitous sight.
The tap-taps, meaning “quick-quick,” are brightly painted pick-up trucks that have been fitted with a roof and seats and function as a means of public transport. The graphics usually have a religious significance.
One day we had lunch at the charming Gingerbread Resturant and I indulged in my favorite Haitian dish: griot (fried pork shoulder); pikliz (spicy pepper and onion salsa); bananes pesées (fried plantains); and an icy glass of Couronne–a deliciously sweet and refreshing fruit soda.
The vibrant art of Haiti is world-famous. Talent abounds, both in the “naive art” that can be purchased from street vendors and in those by trained artists found in the galleries. Yasmine fell in love with this painting below. I think the confidence and irreverent style of the girl resonated with her!
We took a fantastic day trip to Furcy. It was a beautiful region, mountainous and green. The ride had us driving through winding roads and entering small villages with shops and food stations. Merchants sold goods while kids played soccer, using rocks or bottles as a ball. World Cup fever had overtaken Haiti and it was fun to see where their allegiance lay!
We also spent the weekend at the beach and I marveled at the turquoise water, which I could stare at for hours. The Caribbean Sea was so warm and I didn’t hesitate for a moment taking a swim.
More postcards from everyday scenes around Port-au-Prince.
And, yes, I foisted copies of Lagging Indicators onto my Haitian relatives!
The meatballs à la ABBA on the menu at Totto Resturant, where we went for brunch on our last full day, was a reminder that we would be heading back to our lives in Sweden. However, as Haiti is prone to do, she laid claim to our hearts and we promised ourselves that the time in between would not be as great.
Days after we left, unrest broke out due to a rise in fuel prices. That increase has been suspended and I hope there can be far-reaching reforms to bring services and a suitable standard of living for the Haitian people. We came as “tourists” and relished every experience, but know that daily life in Haiti is difficult. I still encourage people to visit this intriguing country. Tourism and investment are the future. Haitians are warm, multifaceted, determined, resilient, entrepreneurial people who deserve a chance for their country to thrive!