News about Haiti is rarely positive. The massive earthquake in 2010, challenging UN peacekeeping efforts, endless poverty and a country drowning in garbage are some of the recurring themes. While all of this is true, Haiti is also beautiful, has a vibrant art scene, and has a mystical and tender side that makes it a must-see place for experienced travelers. I was fortunate to visit Haiti as a teenager decades ago, so I immediately said yes when the opportunity to visit came up this month. I was incredibly curious to see the country again after so many years. I couldn’t wait to find out if Haiti would affect me as deeply now as she had then. The answer was a resounding yes, and already I am planning to return. This time however, I won’t let decades slip by. Next year sounds about perfect. You should get there soon, too. Here’s why.
1. Haiti’s history will surprise you. Christopher Columbus discovered the island during his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. Fast forward to the 18th century, when it became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles”—one of the richest colonies in the French Empire. By the 1780s it produced 40 percent of all sugar and 60 percent of all coffee consumed in Europe—which is mind-boggling when you consider the extreme poverty in Haiti today. Slaves and free people of color successfully revolted in 1804, at the same time that the French Revolution began, which resulted in the Republic of Haiti, the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is the only nation established as the result of a successful slave revolt, and the oldest black republic in the world.
2. Its creativity knows no boundaries. In Haiti, every surface becomes a canvas. I had remembered the Tap Taps, modified pick-up trucks that ferry people around, all painted to the gills. But what really caught my eye on this time were the shop fronts that detail in painted images what’s for sale inside, and the barbers and beauty parlors with intense portraits that stare at passers-by, promising a successful visit. And then of course, there’s the way in which Haitian artists upcycle old oil drums into intricate metal cutouts. Early on, Haiti’s energetic art scene was supported and formalized by the American, DeWitt Peters, who founded an art center in 1944 to school and promote untrained Haitian artists, many of whom are now seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C.
3. Vodou isn’t about zombies and pins. In fact it’s the dominant religion that Haitians practice, and at its core, it’s not that different from Catholicism, or Protestantism. During vodou ceremonies, which take place nightly all over Haiti, the priest or priestess sacrifices a chicken or other animal to the spirits, the ‘loa’. In turn, the participants ask for advice or help. The rituals can take all night, following a consistent format, with dancing, reciting, singing, and drumming. A family friend invited me to witness a ceremony in their neighborhood, in honor of Erzulie, the spirit of love. We arrived well after midnight, when proceedings where already in full swing. I was immediately swept into this otherworldly and enduring celebration, and I felt a profound connection to life and death, one that I find to be rare in the Western world.
4. The nature will take your breath away. Bustling, intense Haiti isn’t for the faint of heart. A few days in Port-au-Prince made me long for fresh air, space, and solitude. Luckily it isn’t too difficult to leave the noise, trash, and exhaust fumes behind. Friends took me on the scenic drive up the mountain from Port-au-Prince to Kenscoff, and from there across a very bumpy dirt road to the small village of Furcy. The views alone took my breath away, and made me fall for Haiti all over again. Time has stood still in Furcy, where farmers tend the land without machines. We went for an extended hike through the village and fields. Not many locals crossed our path, and the few we met were quietly curious and kind. The temperature in Furcy is usually cooler; the views, often above the clouds, endless. This, too, is Haiti.
5. Haitians define resilience. “Deye mon gen mon” is a Haitian saying that translates as “beyond mountains there are mountains” or, more directly, “as you solve one problem, another problem appears, and so you go on and try to solve that one too.” Although among the poorest people in the world, Haitians are unbelievably resilient and resourceful. Out of electric wire? No problem, just use the neighbors’ leftover barbed wire. Which is why, in Haiti, you’ll do well to not touch any wire unless you know for sure what it does and what it is connected to!
Finally, It’s important to respect that Haitians are extremely cautious of cameras, be it for a dislike of perceived slum tourism or simply the belief that a picture takes a part of your soul. So be gentle, and take your time to get to know them first, before asking to take a portrait.
Nina Dietzel is a Sonoma-based photographer and AFAR special correspondent.