This passed weekend, I had the opportunity to travel across the border to Haiti! Thanks to Atlas Travelers and two amazing tour guides, Jenny and Lesly, my short but pleasant time on the other side of Hispaniola was an experience I will never forget.
Originally, before arriving in the Dominican Republic for my study abroad trip, I knew that I wanted to do as much traveling as possible and to take advantage of my proximity to other countries I’ve always dreamt of visiting but I never considered going to Haiti. Sure, the country was on my bucket list of places to travel to, but I told myself Haiti could wait. When I was presented with the chance to go however, I immediately signed up and I am glad that I did.
At 5 am on Friday morning, a small group of us left for Dajabón, the city where the Dominican and Haitian border is located. After going through the necessary paperwork and payments in order to exit the DR, we were on our way to Haiti. Crossing the border was kind of a surreal experience for me. I was aware that I was leaving the DR and entering completely new territory, but I didn’t feel or see much of a difference on the other side. It wasn’t until we made a quick stop not too far in and I heard Creole being spoken, that I realized I was really in Haiti. I was excited at once. It’s weird to think about the fact that all I did was cross a border, an imaginary line separating these two countries that inhabit this one island and I was immediately in another world.
We began our weekend of excursions by exploring the Ciudadela de Laferrière; a fortress located about seventeen miles south of the city of Cap-Haitien. The hike up to the top of the fortress was definitely something I’ll always remember when I think of my time in Haiti. Besides the fact that I was out of breath within the first ten minutes and had to take a horse for the rest of the walk up, I met three amazing boys with whom I had an interesting talk. Miguel, Juan and Frisnou accompanied me and Juan in particular, sparked something in me that day. At just fifteen years old, Juan not only speaks Creole and French, but also Spanish and English and seemed to have no problem translating my Spanglish back and forth to the other boys. Clearly an intelligent boy, I was inclined to ask him if he was in school. He told me that because he didn’t have a book bag and other school supplies, he was unable to attend. This quick reality check reminded me that although I was in Haiti as a tourist, it was important to remain mindful of the actuality of the lives of many of these people.
Besides this heartbreaking situation, the rest of the hike was a pretty amazing experience. There were many other Haitians coming and going as we made our way to the top and I was surprised to see people carrying food and radios to spend the day at this historic setting. I was especially surprised to hear a couple of Jamaican songs playing on the radios that a few of them were carrying.
We finally got to the top and along with Maurice Etienne, a native to the town of Milot as our guide, we began our tour of the site. Ciudadela de Laferrière is considered to be the largest fortress in all of the Western Hemisphere, as well as the largest in all of America. The fortress was built by 20,000 workers between the years of 1805-1820, under the order of King Henri Christophe as a way to keep the newly independent Haiti safe from possible attacks from the French. It was great to hear the background of such a place and I admired the passion in Maurice’s voice as he spoke about the complex history he was obviously and understandably very proud of.
After leaving the citadel, we drove back to town to the Lakou Lakay Cultural Center. There, we were greeted with a performance of traditional music native to Milot and a colorful and delicious lunch of cassava, plantain, rice, vegetables, chicken, natural juices and Haitian coffee to end the meal. We then left for our next and last site of the day: Palacio Sans-Souci. This palace was the residence of King Henri and his wife Queen Marie-Louise. We were able to wander around and relax in the grass while we listened to Maurice talk. Overall, I had an eventful and amazing first day in Haiti.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we left to spend the day at Belly Beach. We took a small and vibrant-looking boat over, where we spent our time doing beach things. I realized for the first time all semester, I actually felt relaxed and at ease. After swimming in the water, and eating one of the best meals I’ve had during my time abroad so far, I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging and listening to Haitian music as I watched the sun go down.
I think one of my favorite parts of the entire weekend was what happened next though. On our way back to Cap-Haitien, we got a flat tire. Luckily enough, some members of the United Nations Chilean military deployed in Haiti were passing by at the right time, and stopped to give us a hand. It was a moment I won’t ever forget when I look back at my abroad experience. That night, we all got dressed up and headed to dinner at the lovely Restuarante Lakay. Unfortunately, I got sick before dinner so I wasn’t able to enjoy the night as much as I wanted to, but nevertheless, I appreciated being in the company of the group and watching Haitian couples show off their moves on the dance floor.
On Sunday, my last day in Haiti, we visited the Vertière Monument before making our way back to Santiago. The Battle of Vertières in 1803 was a major battle of the Second War of Haitian Independence and the last part of Haiti obtaining their full independence. After stopping to take some pictures and to listen to the history behind the monument, we had lunch at a restaurant not too far from the border upon returning to the Dominican Republic. During our lunch, Jenny asked each of us to go around the table and to describe Haiti/our trip in one word. My word for Haiti: real. I don’t know why, but I was taken aback by the authenticity of everything I saw. I was able to catch a glimpse of the real Haiti; a country that is constantly being portrayed a certain way in the media. Haiti is so much more than what Google Images can show you, and although it was short, I appreciate the time I spent there and the experience has changed the way I view the country. Like most third world countries, Haiti does suffer economically, but with its undying culture and breathtaking history, it will forever be rich.