Haiti's landscape masks troubled past
MILOT, Haiti - We are strolling down a rural road heading toward this small town an hour from the oceanside city of Cap-Haïtien. There are mango and banana trees, people sorting beans, and once in a while a dilapidated truck teeming with passengers. But there are no tourists, no hotels, no restaurants, not even a store.
A young man hoping to sell a painting spots us. In a country where tourism has dried up along with the soil and the economy, a visitor with a few dollars presents a rare opportunity.
Agnes and I promise to buy a painting after we return from the nearby Citadelle Henri Christophe, the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere and Haiti’s best-known tourist attraction. The young artist introduces himself as Tony and insists politely that we make our purchase now. Later, he assures us, we will be hard-pressed to say no to others struggling to sell something.
When I arrive at the base of Bonnet a l’Eveque mountain (the Bishop’s Miter) two hours later, ready to hire a horse for the ascent, Tony is there. If he has to wait a week to make his $10 sale it will be worth it.
At one time, Haiti was a popular vacation destination and the Citadelle was a prime stop on the tourist map. Today, nearly all of the 50,000 or so annual visitors come on humanitarian missions. They work for USAID (US Agency for International Development) or the United Nations, Doctors Without Borders, or Project Teach, and they do not spend their time shopping for souvenirs.
Like most of the foreigners, I am here for a purpose. I have come with a Haitian-American woman who built a school a few miles from here. For this one day only, my party of six is sightseeing.
The ascent to the Citadelle begins at the ruins of Sans-Souci, which casts a shadow over the village. This hillside palace was built in 1810 by King Henri Christophe, who reigned over the northern part of the country after it gained its independence from France in 1804. Although the structure is massive and impressive, it is in partial ruins as a result of an 1842 earthquake.
From here, we buy our admission to the Citadelle. My friend and I each pay a $5 entrance fee; our four Haitian-born friends each pay a dollar. We hire horses at $10 each to carry us the five miles and 3,000 vertical feet up. Local men, boys really, will lead our horses and make sure we reach our destination safely.
One of us, a graduate student from Haiti who has lived his entire life here, is so excited to see the Citadelle, and we realize how much this landmark means to Haitians. It appears on stamps, posters, and currency and is prized as a symbol of the independence won when millions of African slaves fought off the French colonialists. Because Haiti was born in what remains the only successful slave revolt in world history, the Citadelle and Haiti to this day are revered by many around the world.
UNESCO added both the Citadelle and Sans-Souci to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1982, noting that these monuments “serve as universal symbols of liberty, being the first monuments to be constructed by black slaves who had gained their freedom.’’
As our horses weave their way up the dirt road, dramatic mountains roll out before us. On reaching the Citadelle, it becomes clear why Christophe picked this spot for his fortress. From atop 130-foot walls, we can see into nearby valleys, over mountains ringed by clouds, and out to the Atlantic Ocean off the north coast.
Before setting out, we had all agreed to avoid the clutches of the so-called tour guides we knew would be waiting for us at the top. Nonethelesss, a man who speaks English persists until we finally give in and follow him. Without him, we may never have found the restroom, with its toilets that empty into hundreds of feet of open air below.
Our guide also takes us into dark rooms where we can run our fingers over beautifully engraved cannons. He tells us there were 365 such cannons installed in the Citadelle, and then brings us outside where we can see enormous stockpiles of cannonballs stacked in pyramids.
Although the Citadel is a monument to that newborn Haiti, its history is fraught with irony. Christophe, a former slave who himself was a ruthless leader, built this structure over 15 years on the backs of 20,000 enslaved workers. According to legend, its strength comes from a mortar made partly from the blood of local goats and cows. Christophe stocked the fortress, as our guide tells us, with enough supplies and food so that he, his family, and 5,000 defenders could live there for a year. After he killed himself in 1820, his supporters entombed his body in one of the Citadelle’s courtyards.
On the walk down the mountain, we pass women preparing huge baskets of beans, and men laying out coffee to dry. We stop to cool off in water from what must be the only faucet on the hillside. We buy wooden boxes from women who live in stick homes on the side of the road and crackers from children who use a cigar box on stilts as their roadside kiosk. Our guide reappears on the side of the road to sell us simple wooden flutes.
Back at the base of Bonnet a l’Eveque, we find Tony waiting. He follows us back to the school and gives us a private showing of his art.
Amy Miller can be reached at email@example.com.