Ramparts & Rebellion
By: Dave Shellnut
Citadel Henri, in the clouds, was a surreal experience. At 700 meters above sea level, down each hallway and cannon battery, bricks and cannons faded into the mist. One particularly long stretch of ramparts roofed in angled wood that exposed one side to the invisible valleys below made the hairs on my neck stand up. I turned around a stone corner and stared 20 feet into nothing but grey cloud. The immensity of the Citadel both in size and historical significance was unsettling yet stunning. I was alone at that moment, but very much aware of what stories lay just beyond that which I could not see in the west wing. This would be an all too familiar feeling during my 9 days in Haiti.
I arrived in Port-au-Prince on the 26th of April, 2017. After many years studying the unique history of the island formally known as the Pearl of the Antilles and Ayiti, I finally wavered in the right direction and set off on my standard 1-2 week work appropriate vacation. I had made some connections over the years and was put in touch with Haiti Communitere. This community based organization runs a variety of programs, as well as a bed and breakfast style commune in Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince (Cité Soleil gets a bad rap for being a crime ridden slum where no one ought to ever venture.) However, Cité Soleil is close to the airport and my accommodation there, at the Haiti Communitere compound, was lush and friendly. It was an ideal jump off point for the upcoming adventures.
During my first night in Haiti, I sipped some of the coldest beer in my life and listened to drums in the distance. After “a few” cold beers and a taste of the exquisite Haitian rum, Barbancourt, I set off to find those drums. Armed with whatever the opposite of a masterful grasp of the French and Creole languages is, I wandered through the patchwork lit - concrete fenced lined - streets. I did not get far before stumbling across a group of young men. They sat chatting outside of a small shop, also drinking beer. Similar to the host’s etiquette I try to exhibit in Toronto, they made this foreigner feel welcome in their neighbourhood, agreed to let me sit with them and enjoy a drink. Our conversations were lively and positive. Jobs, or a lack thereof was a hot topic. Frustration with foreign efforts to “rebuild” was a theme easily caught. Finally, music favourites were exchanged, swigs of communal rum, and I walked off into the night. Though I wasn’t alone, as the young lads insisted upon walking me back to the gates of Haiti Communitere.
Creighton, my American friend and one of the heads of Haiti Communitere at the time, gave me a crash course in local transit the following morning. I left some bags with him, took just enough gear for quick movements (and beaches obviously), and hopped on the back of a motorbike. I did this at 27 years of age in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but as a 34 year old lawyer it was slightly less exhilarating. The bike owner/driver, Moe and I weaved through a very congested Port-au-Prince to not a bus terminal, but rather where vans “gather”, waiting to whisk folks off to various corners of Haiti. I jumped in the middle of 3 Haitians in row 4 of 5 of a Toyota van and for an easy $5USD, I was on my way to Jacmel, a UNESCO creative city.
Although a port city, Port-au-Prince is surrounded by mountains. Haiti is mostly mountains. (No wonder revolution was successful here.) Next to the grave warnings on the dangers of Cité Soleil, were the tales of the deforested hillside mountains of Haiti, barren of even the most meagre of trees. As with Cité Soleil, this “problem” was also exaggerated. Sure there were areas of deforestation, but also areas of lush brush and mangos for sale as we passed through each town.
Through the mountains, south of Port-au-Prince, you reach Jacmel, a city on the coast and the art capital of Haiti. I could have spent my entire trip here. On my first night, I lived lavishly. I stayed at the James Bond-esq Hotel Cyvadier. The restaurant and bar sit atop golden brown rock cliffs that wall an ocean bay. The water is turquoise. You descend down a hidden pathway through the rock to a small beach, say hello to the local kids playing and men working on reinforcing the seawall, and then paddle yourself out into the bay. I spent a lot of time there, physically and spiritually, riding the rolling waves, taking time to stare out into the ocean and back to shore at mountainous Haiti (and a rad cliff side bar).
A night of luxury later, and I was awake (thanks to some Americans - more on that later). I hopped on a motorbike and went into Jacmel. I spent the day walking the promenade and exploring the city. Both need some infrastructural work, but the covered market and tiled beachfront hold a ton of potential. I sat in a beautiful park, at the top of the city, before walking down to the Jacmel Arts Centre. Hold onto your wallets. Haitian artists through ingenuity, depth, colour, texture and a deep sense of intrigue can easily relieve you of your cash. Rightfully so based on this piece.
Art purchase in hand, I prepared to leave town. I sat in the 19th century Hotel Florita chatting about return routes with the bartender and now friend, Gabriel. The place is off the charts. It is awesome. Rammed with artwork, flowers, and mahogany floors, the unique design of the hotel drips in history. The bar is where hipster pirates would have fussed over rum cocktails, but it also has a 50s chicness to it. I met three people here. One was Sadrac, a young community leader who chatted with me about Canadian church groups who support his small town. He also convinced me to come with him to said town, conveniently located near Bassin Bleu, an epic set of crystal blue waterfall pools just outside of Jacmel that cannot be missed.
Second, as I mentioned, I met Gabriel, who chatted about his New York girlfriend and commiserated with me over college woes. Third, well not a person, but people, the Americans. Jay, Derrick, Ki and Catfish.
I recognized their voices immediately. Their American accents, my alarm clock that morning at Hotel Cyvadier, rang out from across that empty hipster pirate bar. I decided to confront them. Honestly, I was alone and felt like a good chat, so I walked over and said hello.
Like Haiti, these folks had depth. After our Jacmel encounter, they would proceed to make my trip. Jay, Derrick and Catfish have Haitian roots and connections of varying degrees to the island nation. Ki is from LA and was rightfully suspicious of a white boy with an Angela Davis tattoo. At the bar, we chatted for a while about our respective tourist experiences and our reasons for coming to Haiti. Theirs were, in part, to experience an aspect of their heritage and document it for others stateside. There was also a great deal of discussion about what they could do as Haitian-Americans to bring skills, technology and positive contributions to the people of Haiti.
After talk of progressive social ideas led to plans for the immediate future I began to take my leave. This was not allowed. Jay, the man with the keys (and with whom I shared a common legal connection in Toronto) conferred with the others and they insisted upon me joining them in their Nissan Patrol, not just back to Port-au-Prince but by road, to Cap Haitien.
I will admit, Derrick and I enjoyed Haitian rum for much of that long journey north, but most of the ride was spent admiring the hilly Haitian landscape, rhyming along to King Kendrick, and discussing revolution, both in continental North America and Haiti (past and present). It was truly a privilege discussing and listening to Jay, Derrick, Ki and Catfish discuss the decidedly black nature of the Haitian revolution alongside present day racial realities and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
After a full day and a bit of driving (thanks Jay), we arrived in Cap Haitien, Haiti’s northern port city. We immediately set off for the Citadel. It was cloudy and we were tired so we drove to the half way point and went on foot for the remaining 25 minute walk up the mountain. It was hot and the tourist pressures were (like many impoverished nations), suffocating, but when we reached the Citadel, it was just us. Literally, the 5 of us and our guide, were alone in what has been called the 8th Wonder of the World, Citadel Henri. A massive fortress built upon the top of a mountain. Cannons stolen from battles with colonial powers, French, English, Spanish, peer menacingly through the ramparts. Their area of fire perfectly covering every foreseeable valley pass. This fortress, built by freed slaves at the end of the Haitian Revolution was meant to ward off any further European attempt to retake and re-enslave. It is one of the most impressive structures I have ever seen in my life. It must have been to those Europeans also, for they never once attacked the Citadel.
The clouds only added to the Citadel’s mystique and magnitude.
As we silently walked the Citadel’s hallways, braving rain and winds on the ramparts, I smiled out into the misty unknown. I had wanted to come to Haiti for years, with a desire to spend my money in a country that could use it and not in a corporate Sandals somewhere. I wanted to visit a people and see a land so often characterized as incapable and not travelable. What I was met with was a people and culture that despite centuries of attempts, remains unbroken. The Haitian Revolution is one of the most unspoken marvels of human history. The aftermath is complicated. The present is unclear. But, with a little understanding the island is an incredible place to visit.