Travel: Love, Haiti and the pounds 200 lunch

Poor but expensive, fertile but deforested, this beautiful Caribbean island still has much to offer. By Richard Naisby
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The Independent Culture
By night, Port-au-Prince presents a forbidding face to arriving visitors, a kind of South Armagh with palm trees. Blue-helmeted UN soldiers guard airport compounds and fires burn in the shanty towns that line the road from the Dominican Republic. As I stepped out of the air-conditioned bus into the fetid heat of downtown, I was grateful for the advice of my fellow passengers. "Go to Petion-Ville," they said. "Find a hotel, come back in the morning."

Petion-Ville is the classy part of town. A pleasant suburb of Port-au- Prince, though once a separate entity, it straddles a ridge more than 1,000ft above sea-level. Finding a taxi to take me up the 10-mile road was easy. Persuading the driver to stick to the agreed price was far more problematic.

This was my first experience of one of Haiti's many paradoxes. It is an appealingly schizophrenic place - the western hemisphere's poorest nation, where you can spend pounds 200 on a meal; a fertile paradise, with catastrophic deforestation; a tribal African culture flourishing under Caribbean skies.

Despite being so vividly poor, Port-au-Prince is not cheap. Haiti is the nearest place to the USA where junior CIA men and well-meaning missionaries can practise their skills. The presence of so many UN and aid workers on expense accounts consequently means that a short taxi ride costs the equivalent of one month's wages for the ordinary Haitian.

In the morning, the view was stunning. Port-au-Prince lies at the head of a broad bay, surrounded by mountains. From Petion-Ville, the whole panorama lies spread out before you. I was itching to explore. Careful not to make the same expensive mistake twice, I joined the throng of people waiting for a tap-tap, the ubiquitous local transport. These brightly painted pickup trucks carry as many passengers as can be crammed in the back. Sixteen of us got out at the market, the street that by night had looked grim and forbidding was now transformed into a maelstrom of colour and noise. Pounding music blared from giant loudspeakers. Thousands of frenzied stall holders hawked everything from pineapples to single-cupped bras.

The crush was thickest near the old Iron Market. Topped with minaret- style towers and elegant even in decay, this rusting hall is a surprising haven from the chaos outside. Shafts of dusty sunlight penetrate the cool, dark interior, revealing mounds of spices, specimen jars full of pickles and a caged gallery of condemned chickens.

A little way from the market I found the Cathedral of the Trinity. A solitary organist thundered with great agility in the empty space. Vast murals decorated the walls around the altar, luscious biblical scenes mingled with native symbols and market places, all in vibrant colours and dynamic brush strokes.

I ate lunch in a small restaurant tucked in a dusty courtyard, the food reflecting Haiti's turbulent past. This is African cooking with a distinctly French flavour. The only nation founded as a result of slave rebellion, Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. A century of civil strife was followed by American invasion and occupation. Several despots followed the US withdrawal until "Papa Doc" Duvalier was elected President in 1957. The Duvaliers, father and son, wielded power through the brutal Tontons Macoute militia until "Baby Doc" fled for France in 1986.

Since the fall of the Duvaliers, Haiti has seen a succession of military dictatorships, disputed elections, coups and bloodshed on a horrifying scale. The situation at the moment, though far from ideal, is at least one of uneasy calm. Travel restrictions imposed in the early 1990s are now lifted and the authorities are encouraging tourism.

One of the beneficiaries of more peaceful times is the Hotel Oloffson, the grande dame of Port-au-Prince hotels. Graham Greene set The Comedians here, and there is still some of the old magic about the place. However, as I drank cocktails on the veranda I noticed how self-consciously eccentric all the trappings feel. The kitsch trinkets that cover the walls were dated even when Greene stayed here.

The Oloffson, and other large gingerbread-style houses on the hills around Port-au-Prince, are a throwback to the distant days of comparative prosperity in Haiti, but the stinking filth of the shanty towns is a reminder that for most Haitians, today's reality is very different.

The contrast is greatest by the Catholic cathedral. This great twin- spired Battenburg cake dominates the skyline, but around its walls, rotting garbage lies many feet deep, and smoke from burning litter drifts lazily over the manicured gardens.

I was ready at the bus station in good time for the 7am "Gloria Superbus" to Cap Haitien. At 12.30pm we trundled slowly out of the bus station, as the driver gave one last melancholic, but ear-shattering blast on the horn.

The road passed through the worst of the slums, past voodoo shrines and out onto the coastal plain. The landscape here is dry, barren scrubland, ravaged by deforestation. The beaches beside the road are long, white and blinding - and completely empty. North of the scrofulous town of Saint- Marc, the road deteriorates into a rutted track where small tornadoes whip up dust. At length, the road improved, turned inland and began climbing. Haiti is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean, and as the temperature freshened, it became obvious why this country was once the most desirable colony in the Americas.

Huge tree ferns overhang the road as it climbs, hairpin after hairpin, ever higher past villages where tiny thatch-roofed houses huddled around bucolic rough-stone churches. At the summit, the view opens to a vast panorama of the northern coast, serried ranges of green hills stretching off towards the dark blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Five hours from Port-au-Prince, the bus pulled to a halt in Cap Haitien. The second city of Haiti, it feels immediately friendlier than the capital. The tiled roofs and arcades lend a Spanish air to the streets, but roadside boucheries des chevalines and boulangeries are a reminder that, 200 years ago, this was the last town in French hands. In a state founded through slave rebellion, it is ironic that the best-known, most spectacular destination was built by forced labour for a black king. Citadelle La Ferriere is a massive cliff-top fortress, erected between 1804 and 1817 for Henri Christophe, one of the revolutionary leaders.

The way to the citadel passes through the palace of Sans-Souci, built to rival Versailles, but these days long ruined. The path climbed steeply through lush forests of bananas, oranges and guava. Tiny hummingbirds flitted through the shadows and I was followed by charming, wide-grinning children. They cannot speak English, but the one word they do know, "Dollar", they chant.

Finally the castle appeared, gaunt, stark and utterly unassailable. From the ramparts, I could see deep into the Haitian central plateau. Cannon batteries guarded the view towards Cap Haitien and the coast. In the distance lay a deep, protected anchorage, but the shelter is deceptive. In this bay, on Christmas Day, 1492, the Santa Maria, Columbus's flagship, sank in a storm. Columbus may not have found the way to Asia he sought, but within a year he was back. For all its foibles and contradictions, Haiti is a beautiful and intriguing country, and Columbus knew a good thing when he saw it.