In spite of all the pre-departure horror stories, James Ferguson found a warm welcome amid the poverty and faded elegance

''Why Haiti, for God's sake? They'll probably eat you at some voodoo ceremony." My neighbour at the Oxford high-table dinner was puzzled by my choice of academic excursion. I'd applied for a grant to travel to what Graham Greene had unreassuringly dubbed the "nightmare republic" to pursue my postgraduate research into French history. Amazingly enough, the money was forthcoming, and suddenly the prospect of throbbing drums and headless chickens seemed uncomfortably close.

It was the fault of my girlfriend (now my wife). She'd persuaded me that I would learn more about Toussaint Louverture and the first Black Republic on the spot than in the cloistered safety of the Bodleian Library. We'd survived a short, expensive and very hungry trip to Algeria the year before, so thought that another taste of a former French colony would be instructive, if not exactly fun.

The books I consulted were not encouraging. The Comedians isn't a tourist-friendly advertisement, what with Tontons Macoutes, corpses in swimming pools and the like. The Berlitz guide pointed out that in Haiti "they bury the dead under heavy tombstones to keep them from returning to haunt the living". A trawl of news cuttings and reports revealed that Baby Doc Duvalier's regime was among the worst human-rights abusers in the Americas.

So, in a state of apprehension, we flew to Jamaica in August 1985, and spent a week or so in Kingston and Port Antonio, grey, humid and rather decrepit. It was a culture shock of sorts, especially as my experience of abroad, Algeria aside, was limited to France. Jamaica seemed more rundown and brooding than exotic.

Nothing, though, could have prepared us for our first impression of Haiti. If the road from Kingston's airport into town goes through some dodgy districts, the way into Port-au-Prince was like shifting a century or two, a snapshot of Third World chaos. There were as many animals as vehicles on a road that was as much pothole as tar. Ramshackle shelters of palm thatch lined the route, interspersed with half-finished breezeblock boxes. Piles of burning rubbish produced a sickly sweet smell that drifted into our antiquated taxi. People were everywhere: children playing in nasty-looking puddles, women squatting by piles of fruit, and everywhere the frenetic and noisy activity of the Haitian capital.

For a terrible moment, it crossed my mind that all of Haiti might be like this. But soon the taxi began to climb into a more salubrious world of high walls and lush gardens, and pulled up outside a large white building of Victorian appearance. This was the Santos guesthouse, an elegant but inexpensive establishment that seemed mostly to cater to the many aid workers who have always been drawn to this land of spectacular poverty.

The Santos, set in the upper-middle-class hillside suburb of Turgeau, promised a retreat of calm and good taste. Stunning Haitian paintings and sculptures complemented mahogany furniture and a cool entrance hall, watched over by the stern but kind Madame Santos. A small pool was shaded by a breadfruit tree. From this haven of demi-pension tranquillity we made excursions down into the teeming confusion of the capital. The library, the pretext for this academic foray, was in the middle of town, and my perusal of disintegrating books took place in a cacophony of hooting cars and yelling hawkers. This, however, was peace and quiet compared to the real heart of the city, the few blocks around the main Dessalines avenue, where a market attracts an almost impenetrable mass of humanity.

It struck me then that people with no money spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in buying and selling. Vast piles of plastic bowls vied for attention with counterfeit watches; heaps of green bananas lay next to mountains of second-hand clothes shipped in from Miami. Even more cornucopian was the Iron Market, a stifling Victorian structure stuffed with paintings, religious artefacts and determined salesmen, from which I feared I'd never emerge.

Poverty in Port-au-Prince was sometimes shocking. Outside the cathedral, emaciated beggars seemed close to dying; mothers thrust babies at the few tourists; a sprawling slum area by the sea, La Saline, was an endless jumble of cardboard shacks and open sewers. But the city was also beautiful. Gaunt mountains, skeletal through deforestation, surrounded a perfect horseshoe bay. Eccentric filigree mansions half-hidden by bougainvillea stood on the hills. Elaborately decorated minibuses invoked divine protection, while lovingly hand-painted signs advertised restaurants and hairdressers. From high in the bourgeois suburb of Pétionville, Port-au-Prince looked gorgeous, especially at night.

We hired a car and drove to the once-prosperous and nostalgia-ridden south coast port of Jacmel, full of crumbling gingerbread mansions. We visited the northern city of Cap-Haitien, the "Paris of the Antilles" before the French were thrown out by the slave army. Here, in a scene Graham Greene might have relished, we met a Baptist coffin-manufacturer from the American Midwest who had come to do some good work. And, of course, we did what every visitor to Haiti should do: we marvelled at the Citadelle, the impregnable mountaintop fortress built by the mad King Christophe to withstand a French reinvasion that never happened.

Haitians were unfailingly kind and friendly, if sometimes a little hard to shake off when scenting dollars. The old cliché about dignity amid poverty came to mean something, as did the other one about creativity. Artists produced idyllic landscapes poignantly at odds with the dusty reality, sculptors fashioned mysterious icons out of recycled metal.

And Baby Doc, though he didn't know it, was living his last months of luxury in the gleaming white presidential palace. The following February, he was unceremoniously chucked out by his generals and the Americans. Things were supposed to get better, but they didn't. When I returned in 1987, the army was in charge, there were no tourists, violence was rising. I later heard that a politician had been shot dead in the hall of the Santos and that Madame had packed up and left for Florida.

It certainly made a change from France, and we returned uneaten. But something had bitten me; and I decided then that the academic life was not for me. Twenty years on, I'm still going to the Caribbean, though I'm afraid the varsity is no longer paying the air fare.

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