Ok. So we're not gonna pretend we are experts on the subject of Haiti after having spent less than 4 days there. What we can say though, is its the most insane place any of us have ever visited. The "Dream Team" of Ben Sand Ghostkamera, Jan "Ring Them Bells" Johansen, and Kjetil "Marlboro" Tangen boarded a Copa Airlines flight from Havana after one month of disgust and regret. With a two hour stopover in Panama City in which we all wept at the sight of Carls Jr (after having eaten overcooked, bland, disgusting food for one month in Cuba) and were interrogated at length by random police officers at the strange patterns of our itinerary, we finally boarded our final plane to Port-Au-Prince surrounded by Haitians and 2 caucasians. Both
were aid workers.
The plane landed after an uneventful flight, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the bald American guy standing by the gate with a pump action shotgun. Hmmm. We cleared immigration, managed to get some restaurant tips from a lovely Dutch woman who, yes you guessed it, was an aid worker and balked at the news that we were there as tourists. "But nobody comes to Haiti as tourists". We know, we know.
Outside the airport there was a veritable scrum of activity with taxi drivers vying for our business. We dropped off to the perimeters and waited until a sensible looking chap offered us a ride to our hotel for a reasonable price. His car had tinted windows too, which would prove to be a bonus. Jan and I sipped vodka as we hurled through the streets of P-A-P with it's shanty town dwellings creeping onto the roads badly decrepit state. Locals sat on the side of the street watching the traffic go by, men looked on menacingly, the area had a slightly eerie feeling to it. You knew you were not 100% safe, yet wondered if it was the true state of affairs or something your mind had been colored to accept by foreign media and photographs of naked
dead people being dragged down the streets followed by rabid crowds wielding machetes. Either way, this place made Karachi look like a walk in the park.
Finally, after a few more large gulps on the vodka bottle, we arrived at Hotel Olofsson. A place I had randomly stumbled upon a while back while googling Haiti. A hotel, complete with armed guards, massive fence protecting the insiders from the outsiders, a gorgeous pool, and one of the most beautiful buildings any of us had ever seen. An 19th century Gothic gingerbread mansion set between enormous trees and a hill
behind offering protection. The main part of the building adorned with a wonderful balcony stretching across the front where diners could sip an afternoon beer and look out at the foliage and the pool beneath. Local artwork splashed across the walls, antique furniture, and that wonderful smell of time passing almost unnoticed.
We checked in to a huge room with the worlds largest bathroom right next door to the room Jean Claude Van Damme stayed in a decade before. Old rocking chairs on the balconies looking out over the uncertain town beneath. After a couple of Prestige beers on the balcony presided over by the friendliest waiter, and
soothed by the sounds of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, darkness fell and we thought it apt to seek adventure.
Being novices, not the kind of people who travel with Lonely Planets, and completely unaware of the goings on of this city, we thought it clever to leave our fortress and head down to find motorcycle taxis up to Petionville where one of the restaurants the Dutch woman recommended lay. After arguing at length over the price we all climbed aboard our own motorbike and began what turned out to be an incredibly exciting journey at breakneck speeds up the hills of P-A-P to the hidden heights of Petionville. Obviously the drivers didn't know the restaurant we were asking for and spent over 30 minutes zig-zagging perilously through neighborhoods I wouldn't want to return to in a heartbeat. After a lengthy sojourn and numerous stops to ask the way we finally found the restaurant and settled in to eat mediocre burgers surrounded by westerners dressed to the nines and chauffeured around in their UN or Red Cross vehicles, totally segregated from normal society.
On the way back to the hotel the bikes stopped for petrol at a roadside station, then thought better of it when a group of young kids began to shout at us. The drivers said "Get on" and we drove away quickly, engines off, coasting downhill for 20 minutes past shanty towns, beggars, strange bars, burnt cars, open sewers and the stench of possible danger. I must admit, having been told nothing of Haiti before arriving there, and sensing the strange atmosphere, there were a few times on the bike rides where I was genuinely scared for my life. Not that anything threatening happened, but the looks you got from passers by, and the overall vibe of the place was not welcoming.
It seems foreigners don't take motorbike taxis.
Foreigners don't leave their compounds unless picked up by their organizations cars.
Foreigners don't come to Haiti for recreation.
After a divine sleep afforded by firm mattresses and relative silence, we awoke, had breakfast on the balcony of gods, listened to Serge once again, and met another Aid worker who informed us that Haiti is fairly safe, but whatever you do never take a motorcycle taxi up to Petionville at night. Brilliant! Apparently there are kids who sniff glue who hate foreigners and will not even blink an eye at robbing you blind and using a knife or gun to make matters worse.
We decided to take a walk around our neighborhood, just to see where it was we were staying. I was suffering from the consequences of large quantities of vodka the day before, and therefore lying in a well of anxiety. The strong sun, strange looks from locals and altogether bizarre atmosphere did nothing to allay my fears and after walking a few blocks I turned back and headed for the relative safety of the hotel. I grabbed my John Fante book and sat by the pool reading while Jan farted around in the pool. As night fell we had a slight altercation with Kjetil who was hellbent on heading back up to Petionville, whereas I didn't really feel like repeating the last night again and heading to a "disco" so Jan and I betrayed our friend and stayed at the hotel engaged in conversation with 2 missionaries who were on their night off and got absolutely wankered at the hotel bar whilst buying us numerous beers and speaking of encounters with Sinatra, Tony Bennet, and a whole slew of legends who were personal friends of theirs. They were strange and wonderful at the same time, and a complete and utter bizarre twist to our stay at Hotel Olofsson. Numerous drinks later we decided it time to head to sleep to wake up at 6 a.m. and catch the bus to Santo Domingo, which apparently was the
only way foreigners should leave Haiti.
Being idiots we woke up at 6 a.m., looked at each other, went back to sleep and got up at 11. After a quick breakfast and an enormous trial getting back our laundry we paid our bills and headed to the border of the Dominican Republic with a shoddy old taxi that had seen better days. Passing through the northern suburbs of P.A.P was truly terrifying. People would run towards the car at red lights and start shouting at us through the windows. Whilst driving a couple of times motorbikes pulled up beside us and the passengers shouted "Fuck you you motherfuckers. Fuck off American motherfuckers get out of Haiti". It wasn't exactly the most comfortable I have felt in my life. Further down the road we pulled up behind a huge UN truck with armed soldiers in camouflage, massive weapons and trademark RayBans on sitting in the back. One of them did a
double take when he spotted 3 white idiots sitting in a taxi driving through town. He shouted at his friends to have a look, then gave us a thumbs up and an awkward shrug. We got it.
We all sucked down some Dutch courage and prayed that the taxi wouldn't break down. After passing through suburbs, driving through roads that resembled lakes and hopping over the craziest speed-bumps on earth we finally left the city and started driving into the countryside. Relief washed over our faces as menacing people were replaced with trees and fields lush with plants. The mountains began to appear on the horizon and soon we were curling through wonderful nature and the odd passerby who seemed happier to see us than the city-dwellers. Half an hour before reaching the border the road turned to dust and we drove through the strangest landscape. Chalk quarries lined the road to the right, whilst a huge, beautiful lake set out to the left as far as the eye could see. We drove like that for almost 30 minutes. Mesmerized by the nature. The occasional UN jeep would come tearing past kicking up a hell-storm of dust with it's sun-glassed driver emotionless and rugged in the front.
The taxi stopped about 1 kilometer from the border. We got out of the car, paid the driver, and immediately were pounced on by what must have been 40 motorcycle taxis all begging for our custom. I ran out towards the peripheries to watch the circus. Poor Kjetil got stuck in the middle and was literally being dragged 8 different directions by 15 people holding his bag, straps, shirt, belt, jeans, hair... anything they could grab onto. He shouted "get off" to no avail and they carried on for moments before one of them finally decided he had won and showed Kjetil the way to his motorbike. I have never seen anything so funny in my life. Jan and I were in stitches. We finally made it to the Haiti passport control after driving at 100 km/h on the worst roads I have seen since the early 2000's in Cambodia. The immigration officer asked us which bus we came on, we said we came by taxi and motorcycle. He looked at us strangely before telling us we were idiots and stamping our passport.
Back on the bikes on another hell-ride through puddles and over jagged rocks beating down iron gates with the front tires of the bikes to reach the Dominican side where we could get our visas and enter the promised land. It took all of 2 minutes. The immigration officers didn't give a shit, we paid our 30 dollars, got our stamps and headed back to the motorbikes for the 20 minute ride to the border town where would could
catch a bus to Santo Domingo. After passing 3 impromptu "checkpoints" where lethargic men dressed in sweatpants with guns sticking out of their hips checked our documents we finally made it into town just in time to take out money and catch the last bus to Santo Domingo. 5 hours. No food the whole day. Just bags and bags of adrenaline at having experienced something so insane and hilarious that none of us would ever
want to do it again, but were bloody glad we did.
Six hours later we were seated at a local bar in Santo Domingo with smiling people and big beers that cost a dollar and everything was fine. The dreams and visions of being executed on the side of the road in Haiti were a long gone nightmare that would only ever be realized, perhaps, if we ever set foot in that country again. Something I would actually like to do. Just without the slaughter part.
The Bitter Man
A backpacker by default since birth, have scanned almost 100 countries in the search for perfection and imperfection in equal measure.