Aside from large cruise ships that frequent the island, there are very few foreigners visiting contemporary Haiti, especially after the devastating 2010 earthquake. This was made clear when our American passports were vigorously displayed, as if they were illicit contraband, at the customs office in Dajabon, a border town with the Dominican Republic.
Dajabon ironically means “give soap,” and it is on its face distinctly chaotic and gravely polluted. Nevertheless, it has pleasant attributes too like a lovely, tree-filled downtown park with a cupola at the center, similar to those of colonial Mexico. There is also an abundance of colorful characters, like a shoeshine boy that scrubbed our sneakers with a toothbrush in one hand and an old sweater in the other. In the tiny lobby of our tiny hotel, Victor, James, Nicole and I watched the A-team and drank Prestige, a Hatian beer, in preparation for an exciting and adventurous trip across the border.
The customs office is a concrete building surrounded by a hellishly hot parking lot that is full of business travelers and loiterers. Some wait around while others work the customs game from every possible angle. A friendly, elder man known locally as Petite-Frere, or Little Brother, helped us with our own transaction. Even with his help, we were ripped off $200 in over-stay fees – apparently the law had changed since we arrived in the DR and the customs office did not offer an adjustment time. After paying our dues we met up with Alberto, an amateur reggaeton singer and the previous intern at the coral nursery in Haiti. Alberto knew the chauffer, along with seemingly everyone else in Haiti, and with his help we packed four people into the back of a pick-up-truck for the hairy, three-hour journey to the northern resort where our coral nursery is located.
As we crossed the border a border patrol guard spoke curtly to us, and the Dominicans in our car scolded him for not being friendlier – this is not a tactic I would be eager to attempt with an American customs agent, say at JFK airport. The lack of formality can be refreshing, but the lack of efficiency reaches levels that are truly farcical. Four, un-uniformed passport checkers stopped us, all within the few hundred feet of the crossing bridge, all looking to see how they might extort us. Under the bridge, a large, brown river was full of people, some bathing and swimming, others doing the laundry. Also crossing the bridge were many people carrying comically large loads, including timber and furniture stacked on the back of small motorcycles. Unless you are an expert third world driver with a deep knowledge of “claxon language” and a keen ability to dodge potholes and the occasional dead horse, I would not suggest braving the Haitian highway.
It was immediately apparent that the people of this region have long been left to their own devices, with little help from the powers that be, and that they were all well accustomed to everyday hardships. Some smiled at their lot, others stared it coldly in the face. One man I saw near the border had the hardest eyes I have ever seen in a man. Had he witnessed hundreds of thousands of bodies in the streets, or the deaths of loved ones after the earthquake? Or was he directly impacted by Haiti’s violent political history, including the American intervention that empowered a brutal dictator and prevented democracy from ever taking root? Whatever caused the light to leave this man’s eyes, I reminded myself that I was there as a harbinger of hope, experiencing a nation beset by conflict for the first time and committed to achieving a positive environmental goal – to lend a hand to the gradual restoration of Haiti’s diminishing coral reefs.
As we drove along the country highway I noticed that the music on the radio had changed and I liked it better than the music of the DR as it was more innocent and up-lifting. In the oppressive noonday sun we drove by many happy school kids on the long walk home, and several people having their afternoon wash, covered by light undergarments as they splashed buckets over their heads outside of their homes – mostly simple shacks with small dirt plots for goats and chickens. Women and children washed cloths in polluted waterways, and we passed many piles of burning trash and open sewers. So much of what we take for granted in the first world was laid bare along the road. On the other hand, there were few cars, few loud noises, and a general feel of old-style, pastoral living. Though poverty of course breeds suffering, I have also witnessed in my travels to the developing world that simple living also seems to be conducive to forms of happiness that we in the developed world have long forgotten.
On the ride we had fun learning some of the playful sounding French patois that Alberto had easily picked up in just a few months of being on the Haitian side of his island, Hispañola, and soon we had arrived at a big port called Cap–Haïtien. The coastline was so littered in plastic that it might as well have been a landfill sliding into the rust color sea, which was opaque with the effluent from a large river. Some people were busily gathering the plastic in wheelbarrows, for recycling I supposed, and others were burning it. It dawned on me that every plastic manufacturer and propagandist should visit this port to see first-hand the catastrophic effect their products are having on both people and environment. The island was quite literally being buried in plastic.
In Le Cap, as it is know, street vendors were selling just about everything, but the most common consumer items were car and motorbike parts, personal care products, and used cloths – all displayed in the outdoor thrift stores of the Caribbean. We then headed North through a colorful, colonial part of town that was very scenic but for the boarded-up doors and windows on nearly every building. One street had been cordoned off for a street soccer match. This was clearly not a tourist destination and I felt lucky to witness it. We did not tarry here however, and drove straight up the mountainside along a windy dirt road on which I gawked at the surreally balanced, half-built houses with their elaborately gabled cement balconies looming out through the trees. Some homes were freshly cemented onto the vertical dirt walls of the mountain and trenches and terraces were actively being dug to help fortify the fragile landscape. I wouldn’t want to be caught on this road during a rainstorm that’s for sure.
On the other side of the mountain, as one of my favorite reggae song says, we came upon a tropical paradise, still littered with trash, but a paradise nonetheless; a rocky, intertidal zone embraced a small white sand beach gently lapped by crystalline water, and the road dipped down nearly into the sea. School kids in a multitude of uniforms walked along the road, their whites impeccable despite the abundant dirt and heat. Soon we were pulling into the gate of the Cormier Plage (Beach) resort – an old school, family owned hotel that is truly one of a kind; and everywhere I looked something caught my eye, be it classy artwork or a giant hawksbill turtle shell, clearly a relic of a bygone era and a sad reminder of the living treasures that this ancient sea once held.
The Cormier Plage hotel is an advocate of both marine and terrestrial conservation, and they work tirelessly to try to conserve the old trees on the mountainside property behind them. Though they own this property, its trees are nonetheless in constant danger of being chopped down for charcoal – the country’s primary source of fuel. Deforestation limits the productivity of the land, suffocates near shore waters with sediments, and reduces the ecosystem’s capacity to provide diverse other services, from flood prevention, to eco-tourism, to biodiversity. It is the country’s number one environmental problem (see this amazing photo blog on the issue: http://jonathanauch.com/charbon/).
Aside from the quaint beach and giant, cozy hammocks, the resort offers a voodoo-experience tour and a boat ride to a privately leased island near the coral nursery. To get to the island we first had to drive to the marina, a large port where massive cruise ships dock. The marina appeared to be overstaffed by a multitude of lounging locals, some of whom came to greet us and arrange our speed boat. We rode with the hotel owner and his father in law, a banker in the capital of Port Au Prince, and both men were on business calls as we tore through the waves. I wondered how they could hear anything or even keep their phones dry. In less than an hour we had arrived at the tiny, private island, where we were greeted by all kinds of beautiful people, many of them foreign aid-workers (some tackling the HIV epidemic) and friends of the owner. It just so happens that the resort had hired a PR company to do a photo shoot that day promoting the island, and I accidentally stumbled into the commercial. I also got to play frisbee with the hotel owner’s brown skinned, patois-speaking sons, two of the cutest and happiest toddlers I have ever encountered. The hotel owner told me that he had been equally happy growing up in this paradise and it very much is paradise if one has money and land.
As much as we wanted to relax and enjoy the guests, warm water, and scenery, the coral nursery was waiting. Having been left unattended for some time, Victor exclaimed that it looked surprisingly healthy. Alberto and I scrubbed algae from off of the frames, including the PVC trees – coral frame structures ideally suited to low current environments. James and Victor measured the corals. White spine sea urchins were abundant, along with some other interesting invertebrates, including sand dollars (Mellitidae sp.) and a tiny, mysterious hydroid that covered the coral frames. Shockingly, I only spotted one fish – a baby flounder. Later it was explained to me that the area is heavily impacted by artisanal gill-netters, and the hotel owners are working on creating new opportunities for the fishermen, even considering buying them better engines so they can go further out to sea and have less of an impact on the coastal ecosystem. Another problem for the hotel’s tourism hopes are the flotillas of plastic debris that come in vast flows when the currents pass through, and I noticed a piece of plastic floating on the surface every five square meters or so.
When we returned to the hotel, I saw two burly, European, United Nations peacekeeping soldiers in uniform giving the open lobby a cinematic flair. At dinner, I had one of the best meals of my life, a coconut-based curry, and a rum sour that took the bartender about twenty minutes to mix. Haiti is a country with a rich history, limitless potential, and a long road ahead. Its people are proud and resilient, and its ecosystem is holding on by the roots. There is an urgent need for human services, reforestation, and marine protection and much work is left to be done. I heard that much aid to Haiti has been corrupted and carried out in a way that lines individual pockets at the expense of local people. But if you are strong of heart, and your intentions are good, and you are interested in helping a developing nation and its people, then I would highly recommend visiting Haiti and lending a hand to building a brighter future for its charismatic and resilient people.
Cormier Plage’s offshore island