After having met a family of missionaries from Haiti while I was in the Dominican Republic, I walked over the border to stay with them for a week and I found it really interesting. It isn’t a typical travel destination and there isn’t much ‘to do’ specifically, but I would still recommend it if you enjoy experiencing other cultures.
Public Transport: Tap-Taps
I was staying at their missionary house in a place called Quartier Morin which is half an hour from the second city of Haiti, Cap Haitien, in the North, so I spent my time around there. Conveniently, their house was on a main road where the public transport passes, and they gave me directions for how to use it.
The type of transport I saw (and used) the most was the very majestic Tap-Tap. These are basically little old pick-up trucks with a shelter and wooden benches added to the back, and they let you on/off wherever you like along their route, which goes from one city/village to another and back again all day.
They are very cheap (around 20 Gourdes for a ride – approximately 30 cents US), and inside is extremely cramped. If the ‘benches’ are full, people can also stand inside (basically treading on everyone else’s feet), or hang off the back (probably not advisable if you’re not used to doing that). One time, I got in and I was standing (hunched over because the roof is quite low) and struggling to balance, and an old lady signaled to me that I should sit on her lap, so that’s what I did for the rest of the journey!
The Tap-Taps tend to be decorated with patterns and religious phrases, and they often blast Haitian music from the speaker box in the back. The money-collector guy hangs off the back and hits the roof when someone wants to get off, so the driver knows to stop. No matter how much luggage you have, it’s no problem for them. The money guy uses ropes to attach everything to the roof. Here are a few Tap-Taps I managed to take pictures of:
La Citadelle (Old Fortress)
The first time I used one of these very cool Tap-Taps was for my journey to La Citadelle Laferriere (one of the largest fortresses in the Americas), which is basically Haiti’s only tourist attraction, so I thought I should probably see it.
I took the Tap-Tap from Quartier-Morin to Milot, and although people were very surprised by me wandering down the street by myself and waiting for the Tap-Tap, they were also very helpful and smiley, and it was only thanks to their help (pointing to the correct part of the road when I said “Milot?”) that I knew where to stand and which Tap-Tap to get on.
After getting off the Tap-Tap in Milot (the village near the Citadelle), some moto (motorbike taxi) drivers swooped in on me, signaling that I should hop on the back, and pointing up the mountain in the direction of the fortress. After confirming the price (I think it was 100 Gourdes if I remember correctly, so about $1.50 US), I jumped on the back and we zoomed off up the mountain. This is an awful picture, but this is what the first part of the mountain path looks like, so you can see it’s paved with stones:
Sitting on the back of a bike without sliding forwards or backwards unintentionally is a skill I haven’t yet mastered, and the slopes and bumpiness of the mountain didn’t make that any easier.
The houses on the mountain were very simple and it seemed like the people there lived a very traditional life. There were a lot of old men with machetes going up the mountain for farming, and a lot of houses with roofs made of straw etc. Even though I was whizzing past, it was still fascinating to see, and it seemed really peaceful.
After about 20 minutes, we reached a kind of car park, and the guy stopped his motorbike and I got off. I’d been told there was a point at which the paved path stops and the rest of the path is too rough for vehicles so from there you either have to walk or go on a horse.
I’d already made up my mind that I wanted to take on the challenge of the very steep 30 minute walk (in flip-flops, which added to the challenge), but of course the horse guys kept trying to convince me to go on horseback. I did feel sorry for them because there were no tourists in sight so they can’t have been making much money, but I stuck with my plan and started walking up the path.
Even though I’d found the ride up to that point quite fascinating, the walk was even better. I used my limited Creole to say good afternoon to the people I passed, and most of them were really warm and friendly in return. I found their houses and surroundings really beautiful, and genuinely felt so lucky to be walking through this little traditional community in the mountains of a country I’d only arrived in a few days before. Here are some things I passed:
(The last one is a guy carrying charcoal, which is the main fuel used for cooking food in Haiti).
The walk was definitely a challenge, and by the time I reached the fortress, I still hadn’t seen any tourists! It was a bit strange because normally when you’re near a tourist attraction, it’s loud and busy, but during the second half of the walk, I was so high up the mountain that there weren’t even any houses or people around, the clouds were drifting past my face, and you could have heard a pin drop.
It cost a few hundred Gourdes to get in (a few $US), and it was pretty cool because I was the ONLY tourist in the whole Citadelle! There were about five members of staff so I chatted to them for a while (well attempted to chat, with our language barriers), and then wandered around and took some pictures (yep, the white background in my selfie is literally just clouds) :
I walked back down to the car park with an old farmer and a young guy from the village and we talked the whole way down. There was a souvenir lady near the car park selling wooden carved things, which I didn’t particularly want, but I respected her hustle (she was very smiley, tried to speak English etc.) so I bought a wooden shot glass for about 100 Gourdes.
The moto price actually includes the return trip (yep, they wait in the car park for you for about two hours even though they hardly charge you anything), so I rode back down to Milot on the same bike, and he showed me which Tap-Tap to get on to go back to Quartier Morin.
I’m not that enthusiastic about historical buildings, so I’m not really sure how the Citadelle would rate against other similar attractions for people who are into that stuff, but overall it was an awesome experience to find my way there by myself with the Tap-Tap and moto, walk through the village, wander around in the clouds in a giant fortress by myself, and chat to so many friendly strangers despite a big language barrier.
I spent two days in Cap Haitien… The first one by myself and the second one with the family I was staying with.
The purpose of the first one was just to wander round and see what it was like really. It taught me that even though I’m 23 years old, I apparently still don’t know how to cross a road… at least not in Haiti. The roads were so busy! It was basically a choice of standing on one side forever, or making a run for it in the hope that the motorbikes, cars, Tap-Taps and trucks would slow down for you! Thankfully they did for me.
As well as a lot of vehicles, there was unfortunately a lot of rubbish. Apparently this was made worse by the recent flooding which basically swept rubbish down from other areas. The sides of the roads looked like this, and as you can see, the piggies and goats were loving it:
The ground was quite muddy and uneven, so I had to try and be careful by looking down at where I was walking at the same time as looking up to not crash into anyone.
Something else that was impossible not to notice was the amount of women carrying very impressive amounts of things on their heads! Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of the ones who literally carried their entire ‘shop’ on their head… as in, they had a neatly arranged wide round container with different ‘convenience store’ items such as moisturizer, underwear etc. and if someone wanted to buy something, the woman would take their ‘shop’ down from their head and serve the customer.
I promise the containers were way bigger than these, even though these are still impressive:
Even the street art showed something being carried like this:
A sad thing I observed was that all the beauty salons, barber shops and hairdressers that I passed had pictures of light-skinned people painted on the outside, whereas all the actual Haitian people I passed had dark skin. I also saw a lot of skin bleaching cream for sale on the street.
I was already aware that ‘Western standards of beauty’ or whatever you want to call it, is a worldwide problem, but I found it sad that this appeared to be so prevalent in a country where there are so many more serious things to be worrying about and concentrating on. (I mean, there are always more serious things to be worrying about than the colour of someone’s skin, but I suppose it’s even more obvious in Haiti because it’s basically world famous for poverty and diseases etc.)
I managed to take a photo which I think demonstrates the craziness of the whole thing – Two dark-skinned natural beauties in front of a painting of a light-skinned man:
Again, people were nothing but friendly towards me, and I had a lot of random chats with a variety of people, and with their help it was easy to get on the right Tap-Tap to go back to where I was staying.
Unofficial Markets in Cap Haitien
My second time in Cap Haitien was when I accompanied the family to buy some things from the market. For me, markets are a really interesting way to learn about a different culture, and this one definitely didn’t disappoint. It was the most lively and interesting market I’ve ever been to (or maybe equal to Coronation Market in Kingston, Jamaica).
There are loads of streets in Cap Haitien that are basically markets in themselves. There are informal areas for different types of things, for example, one street mostly has people selling clothing, another street mostly has people selling homeware/fabric etc., and I’m not joking, there is a whole street where they sell MEDICINE, as in, they set up little stalls which are like mini illegal pharmacies (or some just have it on their head like I was saying before).
I didn’t manage to get any photos of these makeshift illegal pharmacies, but I asked a few people about them and they said it’s obviously potentially dangerous because the people who are selling the medicine aren’t qualified to suggest the correct medicine to each person for their problems, so people often end up taking things they shouldn’t be taking, which could make their condition worse. It was crazy to see all the different types of pills etc just out there on tables on the street.
The coolest part of the unofficial outdoor markets, for me, was the phones/electronics part, which happens to be by the main Tap-Tap stop in the town.
I don’t have photos of this either, but the stalls (basically tables with big umbrellas above for shade), had iPads and phones laid out across the tabletops, with absolutely nothing covering/protecting them, and apparently no one steals them! I don’t think there are many countries where that could happen.
The only thing I bought at these markets was some insanely cheap local rum.
Cap Haitien’s Official Indoor Market
The thing that the local people refer to as the market is a big, old building with a market inside every day, mainly for food.
In reality, it spills out to the streets beside the building as well, so you pass loads of vendors before you actually reach the building:
Inside and outside, there are a lot of vendors packed very closely together, so you really have to be careful not to tread on someone’s foot, squash someone’s produce, or walk into someone who suddenly appears out of nowhere crossing your path with a bucket on their head at 100mph.
On the inside, it’s quite dark and the ground is uneven and full of slippery things like cabbage leaves dropped down from the stalls, so again, be careful where you step.
It seemed to have two main sections – one for vegetables and a bit of fruit and dried things like flour, and one for meat, and there were some voodoo stalls dotted around too.
People seemed very shocked about seeing me there and I was getting a lot of stares, and I found it a bit difficult to keep up with the family who were weaving in and out of the people/stalls/rubbish piles like pros, but it was quite fun.
They bought some peas from a lady with a smiley lady with a tiny stall, and then a seemingly mentally ill man started shouting things at me in Creole. He sounded quite angry/aggressive, and the peas lady seemed a bit concerned and told me to come and sit with her behind her stall for safety.
The family thought it was a good idea, so they left me sitting with the peas lady while they went to buy some more vegetables, and told me they’d be back in a few minutes.
The other peas ladies in the row found it quite funny that I was sitting there, and even though we couldn’t communicate much, we had a laugh, and I helped her shell her peas, which caused even more laughter.
When the family came back, the mum took a photo of me shelling the peas on her smartphone, and showed the peas lady, who was absolutely delighted and amazed by this picture of herself. As soon as this happened, all the other peas ladies wanted to see, so the phone was quickly passed down the line and before we knew it, it was about 6 stalls away! They were all equally fascinated and pleased with the photo. It was a really funny and nice moment and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Here’s the photo:
I waved goodbye to the peas ladies and thanked them for letting me sit there, and we went over to the meat section because the family needed something from there.
We passed this guy who was making a bright green paste which is used for cooking. He basically pushes garlic, coriander etc. into the top of his little machine, and turns a handle which grinds it all up, and then a seasoning paste comes out of the bottom of the machine, which he then sells in small bags. It smelt amazing:
I’m vegan so the meat section wasn’t my idea of fun. There were literally whole pigs (not alive, don’t worry) on the tables being hacked into with axes. I was genuinely worried that some blood was going to fly into my face. The smell was pretty nasty, and there were a lot of flies around. There were also piles of discarded parts like organs which looked really horrible.
One thing I found cool about the meat section was the fact that the vendors were singing as they worked! Sometimes they weren’t, but then at a random moment, one would start singing and then more and more would join in until there were about 20 singing along. I thought that looked like a fun way to make work hours pass more quickly.
Of course I was fascinated by the idea of a voodoo stall, so we passed by one on the way out. They were selling voodoo drinks, voodoo flags, and things you burn at ceremonies (like special dried plants I think). I bought a voodoo drink, which apparently a lot of people would never touch, and I still have it in my room now as a souvenir. It’s basically soda in a glass bottle with a special label.
When we walked back out through the outside part of the market, loads of guys had arrived who were holding dead chickens (still with all the feathers on etc.) upside down by the feet. Each guy had about 4 in each hand and they were waving them about trying to get people to buy them. At least that grossed me out less than the meat section!
Summary of the Haiti Trip
As you can see, I didn’t visit many parts of Haiti and I wasn’t there for long, but even the smallest things there were really fascinating for me because it was all so different from places I’d experienced before.
I did a few more things that I haven’t written about, and I didn’t really have any bad experiences (except the crazy guy in the market, but that was fine in the end). I found the people to be open and warm, and if you’re an adventurous open-minded traveller, I would definitely recommend going to Haiti. I really hope I can go back one day and experience some more of it.