The other side of Haiti

In the aftermath of Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake, reconstruction is still a work in progress. Even so, writes Shannon J. Effinger, the country’s rich culture makes Haiti a life-changing destination for the right kind of traveller

Looking over Port-au-Prince from L’Observatoire du Boutilliers. Photograph by Danielle DreisPost-earthquake, much of the city’s commerce takes place on the streets. Photograph ©iStock.com/1001nightsThe restored Marché en Fer. Photograph courtesy Digicel GroupHenri Christophe’s Citadelle Laferrière. Photograph ©Istock.Com/Dlrz4114

Just making my way through customs and out of Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport seemed daunting enough. But nothing could prepare me for the devastation I saw on the thirty-minute drive through Port-au-Prince, caused by the staggering earthquake four years ago.

Street corners had huge piles of debris, and buildings were still in shambles. The commerce that would normally happen in small shops — from selling produce and livestock to wood carving and furniture making — had to go on in the open streets instead. My emotions were both deep and palpable, and it was hard to imagine that much had changed in Haiti since the earthquake in January 2010.

I was fearful that my outrage at how little had been done to restore the country would mar the journey, my first visit to Haiti. But after two weeks exploring the country’s different towns and cities and their vast, unique histories, I was happy to find those initial fears were unfounded. It’s partly thanks to the efforts of those who have worked to ensure the continuity of Haiti’s cultural traditions and its rich artistic heritage, despite the immense disruption of the 2010 earthquake.

An excellent example: the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, which started seven years ago, and was the main reason for my visit. Since 2007, this weeklong event in late January has invited artists from all over the globe to perform — in 2014 there were thirteen visiting musicians — and it serves as a reminder to the entire western world that Haiti is one of its chief artistic contributors. Musician Joel Widmaier and his wife Milena Sandler, the festival’s founders, and Haiti’s Ministry of Culture brought together artists ranging from Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke and performer Sandra Nkaké, who calls Paris home, to New Orleans’ own Soul Rebels. Another guest was singer Sarah Elizabeth Charles, raised in the US but born to a Haitian father. This was the first time the rising jazz vocalist performed live in Haiti — an occasion made even more significant by her work founding an early childhood music education programme there.

In Haiti, art and life go hand in hand in such a natural, intrinsic way that it’s difficult to tell one apart from the other. My explorations of Port-au-Prince drove that home. On my first full day in Haiti, I got a sense of the sprawling shape of the capital city from a visit to L’Observatoire du Boutilliers, where you can take in the whole of Port-au-Prince from above. Standing at several thousand feet in altitude, the observatory offers a panoramic view, and an initial distant glimpse of many of the landmarks that we would later visit.

The catastrophic damage that the National Palace experienced in the earthquake is still evident. Designed in 1912 by Haiti’s premiere architect, Georges H. Baussan, the stately palace with its domes and cupola was the official home to many of the country’s presidents. Two years ago, plans to fully restore the palace to its original design were officially announced in the press. The site faces the Champs de Mars, the plaza that was once famous as the home of Le Negre Marron, the iconic sculpture of an unknown freedom fighter of the Haitian Revolution. Sadly, the plaza is now better known for housing hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitians in the aftermath of the earthquake.

But some of Port-au-Prince’s landmarks have fared better. Just east of the National Palace, the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, opened in 1983, pays historical homage to Haiti’s founding fathers and heroes, from Touissant L’Ouverture, the great leader of the Haitian Revolution, up to the present day, with figures like former musician and current president Michel Martelly.

Many of the museum’s more ornate artifacts — gold sceptres and jeweled crowns — are remnants of Haiti’s wealth during the nineteenth century. After paying substantial reparations to its former coloniser, France, well into the early twentieth century, Haiti gradually became destitute, and the political travails of recent decades have made recovery difficult. The museum does not gloss over these grim circumstances, but rather highlights them as an important part of the country’s socio-political development.

Another Port-au-Prince icon, the Marché en Fer, or Iron Market, was badly damaged in the earthquake, but reopened just a year later in 2011, after a no-expenses-spared restoration by Irish businessman Denis O’Brien, whose telecommunications company Digicel is a commercial giant in Haiti. While the country boasts of several different iron markets, this one — painted bright red, with gold flourishes — is undoubtedly the original, built in 1889. The minarets over the main entrance look as though they belong in North Africa, and in fact the structure was originally designed as a train station hall for Cairo. But Haitian President Florvil Hyppolite somehow acquired the prefabricated building, and planted it firmly in Port-au-Prince. While its iron architecture lends the market its name, it sells everything (food, live animals, spices, artwork, vodou paraphernalia, alcohol) except iron.

A different kind of “iron market” can be found eight miles or so from central Port-au-Prince, in the suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets. As you enter the village, you hear the sound of metal sheets being pounded and carved with such synchronicity that it sounds almost musical. The community of metalworkers and sculptors here create iron artworks famous around the world, from decorative birds, with every detail etched by hand, to wonderful bracelets and bowls. Far more than lovely parting gifts, these are lasting reminders of the hard work that went into creating each piece, and Haitian culture’s pattern of resilience in the face of adversity.

For another immersion in Haitian art, I visited the Galerie D’Art Nader on Rue Gregoire in the heart of Pétionville, an upscale suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince. The Nader family founded their art gallery here in 1966, but their vast collection of Haitian art (over sixteen thousand paintings to date) simply could not be contained in one location. Over the years, they would open other galleries elsewhere in Haiti, and in the Dominican Republic, Miami, and New York. From miniature portraits to murals that literally hover over you, the massive collection includes works from just about every period or style of both classic and modern Haitian art. I was particularly struck by the work of Franck Louissaint. In his paintings of ordinary Haitian women doing everyday chores, the artist’s use of light and shadow is evocative of the work of a photojournalist, rather than a painter in oils on canvas.

Probably no trip to Port-au-Prince would be complete without a visit to the famous Hotel Oloffson on Avenue Christophe. This colonial gingerbread mansion, built in the late nineteenth century, felt like being in New Orleans. In the 1930s, the house was converted into a hotel by Swedish sea captain Werner Gustav Oloffson. The Oloffson soon gained a reputation as the “Greenwich Village” of Haiti, a popular spot for artists, actors, and writers — including Graham Greene, who depicted a thinly disguised version of the hotel in his novel The Comedians. Thanks to the Oloffson’s lush gardens and elegant columns, it feels like a Xanadu-like retreat from the heat and dust of the city.

From Port-au-Prince I made my way north, to see two of Haiti’s most impressive historical monuments. The journey to the north coast city of Cap-Haïtien — former capital of the French colony of St-Domingue — is not always easy. The driving time from Port-au-Prince is roughly six hours. But charter flights cut the journey to an hour and a half, making a day-trip possible.

From Cap-Haïtien we took a short yet picturesque drive to the town of Milot, the “foot” of our tour. Then followed a five-mile hike to the top of the Bonnet à L’Évêque mountain. For a nominal fee, you can either take a special jeep or go by horseback — I opted for the latter. To take in the surrounding majestic landscape while in the saddle (with guides on either side) is quite a thrill. But even more life-changing was what awaited me at the end of the ride.

The massive fortress of the Citadelle Laferrière was built by another leader of Haiti’s revolution, Henri Christophe, to ensure that Haiti would retain its independence. The manpower required to build this massive structure is nothing short of incredible: twenty thousand workers spent fifteen years constructing its 130-foot-high walls, with huge storehouses for food, cisterns, prisons, and an irrigation system designed to withstand a prolonged siege. Quite literally, no stone was left unturned to guarantee Haiti’s protection.

Milot preserves what remains of the Sans-Souci Palace. Built in 1810, this stately structure, whose name means “without a care,” was a home for Henri Christophe and his family. Equally as innovative as the Citadelle, it also featured irrigation systems as well as an early form of “refrigeration” (cool, hollowed-out stone chambers used for chilling perishables). Christophe had the palace constructed to show the world — especially Europe — that black people were more than capable of wealth and power. Ironically, in 1842 an earthquake destroyed much of the palace, and it was never rebuilt. In 1982, UNESCO named both Sans-Souci and the Citadelle as world heritage sites, testament to the pride and confidence that drove the Haitian Revolution more than two centuries ago.

One of the things that most surprised me about Haiti was how many places just felt like home. Lakou Lakay Restaurant, nestled in the heart of Milot, was certainly one of them. Its owner, Maurice Etienne, had lived and travelled to New York on several occasions, and was happy that I, a complete stranger, had made the journey from there to visit him and his fantastic restaurant, after visiting the nearby monuments.

I was warmly greeted by hostesses as they stood over large basins filled with water to wash my hands and face before eating. The food was plentiful — lambi (stewed conch), rice and peas, steamed vegetables, fried banana, and fresh passionfruit juice. It was the perfect meal to end a truly awe-inspiring trip — and a reminder that in any part of the world, in any country, the most remarkable experience of all is often simple hospitality.