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On a freedom song

Despite having great beaches, vibrant arts and the voodooo charm, Haiti is still not a tourist hotspot. Blame it on political turmoil. Patralekha Chatterjee takes us there.

india Updated: Aug 16, 2008 11:38 IST
Patralekha Chatterjee

Is the mission to Haiti that important? I don’t want to be in a plane that does not work,” a nervous, grey-suited passenger told his colleagues when our Caribair flight to Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, was unexpectedly delayed. A technical snag had grounded our aircraft on the tarmac at Santo Domingo, the capital of neighbouring Dominican Republic.

The 20-seater plane held a motley group of health reporters from Africa, Asia and Europe on a field trip to Haiti, the odd local, and a suited-booted delegation from the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private sector arm. There were no tourists.

Despite its pristine beaches, mountains and vibrant tradition in art and culture, Haiti is not a don’t-worry-be-happy Caribbean idyll. To most people, it is synonymous with coups, crushing poverty, constant political turmoil, food riots and of late, kidnappings. We had been told to only move around in a group on the streets of Port-au-Prince and never to carry valuables. Street protests over soaring food costs had turned violent this April, killing at least seven and injuring hundreds.

Some journalists were prepared: a reporter from the Philippines carried crackers and sausages. A colleague from Mumbai had packets of khakra, the Gujarati delicacy, in her survival kit.

Down the one-way street

At first sight, Port-au-Prince looked like a giant flea market. The roads were pitted, the faces hungry. Everywhere there were men and women selling something: imported cheese, liquor, shampoo, music systems — you name it, and someone was hawking it. Who were the buyers? It was not clear. We did not see a single Western tourist or sightseer from anywhere else.

The bursting ‘street economy’ was the flip side of a ruined countryside. Environmental degradation and cheap imported rice had decimated agriculture, pushing out farmers from the fields towards cities. Now, most of the food had to be imported, and few had the money to buy. There was virtually no government at that point. Widespread street violence had forced the last prime minister to step down. The new one was yet to take over. Vast swathes of the country had no functioning roads. Power outages were constant. For a major part of May and June, St Michel Hospital in the coastal town of Jacmel had to stop all surgeries because the back-up generator had also packed up. A nurse told me she brought her own flashlight for the evening shift. But amid all this, beauty parlours dotted the countryside. “It costs little to start a basic beauty parlour,” explained Michou, a young woman who polished my nails inside a tiny room. Lack of electricity limited the services her ‘salon’ could offer.

Black magic men

Michou’s neighbour was voodoo doctor Jean Serge Laurent. He had been a farmer and a jeweller earlier. With his Nike cap, cell phone and impish smile, he looked more a canny businessman than the classic black magician of lore. In a country where the rich go to Miami for medical treatment and the poor die due to lack of healthcare, it did not come as a surprise to know that traditional healers like voodoo doctors were big hits. Haiti is famous for being the birthplace of voodoo. There is even a National Voodoo Association. But voodoo was not just black magic, as sensationalised in Western media, Laurent said. It was a symbol of black nationalism and identity.

At the National Museum in Port-au-Prince, one was grandly introduced by a quick-thinking local reporter, Jerome Phares, as a “visiting Indian delegate”. The entrance fee was waived, an English-speaking guide materialised, and Haiti’s India connection became clearer.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are part of the same island. When Christopher Columbus landed in the island in 1492 on his voyage to find India, he claimed it for Spain, and renamed it Hispaniola. The Spanish established control of the eastern side of the island, which is now the Dominican Republic. By 1697, Spain recognised French control of the western side, now known as Haiti.

“Haiti is the world’s first black-led republic, the original land of freedom. The West thought we set a bad example for the region. That is why all the negative press in the Western media. Tell me, is not Jamaica violent, is not there crime in the Dominican Republic… why do they always pick on Haiti?” asked a friend of Jerome at Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s oldest and biggest newspaper.

Same place, another island

Jerome took us one afternoon to the family-owned restaurant where he lunches every day. It was a simple meal of rice, beans and meat. “Last year, I paid about $2 for a no-frills lunch here. Today, I pay $4. I cannot afford to eat out any more,” he said. Even hunger hot spots have their ‘happening’ corners.

India’s honorary consul in Haiti Eddy Handal hosted a reception in our honour at Hotel Montana, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. This was the world of beautiful people, fine wines and gourmet delights. But the street intruded here as well. A young woman, originally from Delhi and now working for a telecom company in Haiti, said a bodyguard followed everywhere she went. The security trappings came with the job. “Initially, it was flattering to have a personal bodyguard. But I no longer find it exotic, even if he is Irish.”

Chatterjee is a freelance journalist