A Travellerspoint blog

February 2016

Port au Prince - Atlanta - London - Bristol

Homeward bound


View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

05:00 is way too early for my liking, but I prefer to have plenty of time to get ready. Today is departure day and Geffrard is picking us up at 06:15. He is early and we make it to the airport in no time.

The whole airport experience is a bit of a palaver. Uncharacteristically, we allow a porter to take out bags from the car to check in, and tip him accordingly. He lingers, consistently demanding a “tip for my supervisor” Really?

Suspecting previous experience is to blame for the pre-check-in checks in the departure hall, we are not surprised when a Haitian couple are unable to produce a green card or visa for the US, pretending not to understand the questions posed to them and thus holding up the queue.

In the queue for security, I chat to the Canadian UN security worker in front of me, whose alcohol-breath poses a real fire risk. She gets stopped by the officials – I wonder why...

I am not sure whether it is the Haitian authorities or Delta Airlines whose paranoia leads to the sheer number of checks:

Pre-check in checks: US visa / ESTA / Green Card
Check in – tickets / pre-printed boarding cards / passport
Bag drop – boarding cards
Security – boarding cards, shoes off, x-ray
Immigration – passports, boarding cards
Another check – boarding cards scanned
Second security – boarding cards check, manual bag check, body pat down
Boarding gate – boarding cards and passports
On entering the plane – boarding cards

Finally we board our Atlanta bound plane, and find ourselves surrounded by a large group of Pennsylvania Dutch. Are they Amish? Mennonites? Quakers? I admit my ignorance at not knowing the difference. They are all in plain dress, with the women wearing mostly matching pale blue gingham-checked floor-length dresses, a white bonnet covering their hair and make-up less faces devoid of any smile or outward sign of joy. The men – mostly young lads – nearly all look alike which makes me think they are possibly brothers or even one large family. They speak some variation of German amongst themselves, and English to the crew. As the plane starts to taxi, the sound of two dozen passengers quietly singing hymns emits from all around us in the cabin. In all the 650 or so flights we have taken, this is a first!

Leaving Haiti we head due north, initially over the mountainous interior, then later we have great views of Turks and Caicos islands from the plane.

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After a beautiful start, we soon hit clouds and experience some pretty severe turbulence, eliciting loud gasps and even screams from the passengers.

Atlanta

More officialdom on our arrival in the US of A. The self serve immigration desks scan our passports and take our fingerprints, giving me a green light and the go-ahead to enter the country, but David gets a cross and a referral again. They obviously don't like his passport, as the same thing happened on the way out.

The guy in front of us at the queue for the manual immigration also has problems, and requires a Creole translator. We swap queues and are in luck: an immigration official with a sense of humour, joking that David Howard is a common name. "Less of the common please, I like to think it is popular" quips David.

In most other countries when you are in transit, you literally arrive in the departure hall and remain there until your flight is called and you go to the gate. Not so the US. The hand luggage goes through an X-ray while we have to remove our shoes and go through the complete body scanners, followed by a manual pat down.

We collect the luggage and exit through a security check where we hand in the print out from the self check-in in Port au Prince. The luggage then has to be re-checked-in at the desk. Fortunately there is no queue here, and the lady behind the counter takes a shine to my accent, making me repeat the short sentence “It is” again and again. OK......

One more check of the boarding card and passport, then through another body scanner, then we are back in the departure lounge. We check the information board for details of our next flight – I never get used to the unique way flights are displayed in the US – in alphabetical order rather than chronological like in the rest of the world.

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Ecco Restaurant
Having five hours to kill, we want to sit down for a proper meal, being served by a waiter (or waitress), rather than grab a quick bite to eat at a fast food place. The general manager shows us to our table, and starts chatting. Finding that we are on the same wavelength, we and up talking to him for half an hour or more, covering a number of subjects, including politics, travel, culture and languages.

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David is delighted to find they serve cider

The pizzas are very nice, but nothing exceptional and the wine is expensive even though we choose the second cheapest on the menu. . After a couple of desserts and two coffees each, we are totally shocked to find the bill comes to $160! That is by far the most expensive pizza I have ever had. I check and re-check the bill against the menu, but find it is correct, and leave the restaurant with a sour taste in my mouth (and it wasn't the wine).

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The setting sun is just above the horizon as we taxi out to the runway at Atlanta for our flight back to London Heathrow.

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The rest of the journey home is totally uneventful, and in the car on the way back from the airport in the UK, I reflect on airline security checks. On our journey from Haiti to the UK, my passport was checked nine times, boarding card eleven times. My hand luggage went through three x-rays and one manual check. I had two X-rays, two full body scans and two manual pat downs, as well as having to take my shoes off twice. It's good to know we are safe.

Welcome home.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:58 Archived in USA Tagged sunset travel flight usa security pizza expensive virgin airline passport atlanta luggage heathrow aiport delta immigration haiti rip_off ecco security_check ecco_restaurant Comments (1)

Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

sunny 34 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

Darkness still hangs over the Caribbean as we go for breakfast this morning, later replaced by an aspiring sunrise which never really amounts to anything.

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In the distant twilight we spot the Anthem of the Seas – The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship - heading for Labadee so that its passengers can spend the day on the beach.

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In the time it takes the ship to make its way across our horizon, twilight has almost been pushed aside by daylight, showing the ship in all its glory. I reluctantly admit that it does look impressive, at least from this distance.

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The sun is still low as we are driven to the airport for our return journey to the capital.

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Arriving at the airport, my heart sinks when I see the long queue of people - complete with huge amounts of luggage - waiting to check in; and when I realise that even the passengers are being weighed ready for the flight, the aforementioned heart plunges further into my stomach. I am therefore immensely relieved when Serge walks past the queue to another check in desk - the poor people heading for the humiliation of having their weight recorded are travelling to one of the outlying islands, not Port au Prince. Phew!

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Pimp my Truck

In Port au Prince Geffrard awaits us, now like an old friend, navigating his way through the morning traffic; all of which is infinitely more colourful and enriched than our min-van.

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Literally meaning 'quick quick', these buses – known as tap-taps, follow fixed routes, but not a timetable – they leave whenever they are full. That is full according to Haitian standards, not European, with passengers often hanging on the back or even sitting on the roof! There are no fixed bus-stops, the passengers knock the roof when they want to alight.

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They are mostly pick-up trucks which have been lovingly home welded and garishly decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.

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Often painted with religious names or slogans, portraits of famous people, and intricate, hand-cut wooden window covers, the ubiquitous tap-taps are unique to Haiti.

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Musée Canne à Sucre

Although it is not far from Port au Prince airport, by the time we reach the museum I am feeling decidedly weary. The sun is shining relentlessly, and it's already very hot - I always suffers from the effects of dehydration quite quickly - and severely - and I suspect I have not taken in enough liquids this morning.

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All I want to do is sit down, in the shade somewhere, with a cool drink. Instead we are introduced to the guide who will show us around the museum.

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The first room displays a brief chronicle of Haiti's history, from the Taino Indians through to Victorian times.

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Taino artefacts

I feel listless and disinterested, which isn't at all like me. Normally I love museums, and soak up every word the guides say, but this morning I find myself wandering around the displays aimlessly, not really taking any notice of the explanations offered.

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The museum has the appearance of a haphazard collection of random items, situated in someone's living room.

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Slavery
The second room focuses on slavery, revolution and black history in Haiti. If there is such a human trait as having too much empathy, then I suffer from this condition. Looking at the impassioned illustrations displayed, my mind immediately wants to try and imagine how I would feel if I was in that situation. Damn emotions... STOP IT! If I was indifferent to the exhibits earlier, I now find myself getting quite distraught at the thought of man's inhumanity to man.

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Seeing Haiti today, it is hard to believe that it was once the wealthiest overseas colony in the French empire! However, economic success came at a cost - Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

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Map showing where the slaves came from

Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave once they arrived on Haiti was 7 years. Essentially, the owners worked their slaves to death and then just bought more slaves. Those who tried to run away were severely punished and by 1789, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti.

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Cut-away model of slave ship shows the conditions the slaves were transported across the Atlantic under. Goods at the bottom, people on the middle deck.

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Some of the gruesome ways the slave masters kept their 'workers' in check. It doesn't even bear thinking about how cruelly these people were treated. I find it impossible to imagine how someone would have the mentality it would take to dish out that sort of punishment to another human being, and the fact that it was not just isolated incidents, it was considered the norm.

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Once they arrived in Haiti, slaves were divided into different categories: domestic help, overseers, agricultural workers and those involved in the sugar cane industry.

Revolution
Inspired by the French Revolution, the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) is the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and makes Haiti the only country where slave freedom was taken by force. A bedraggled group of slaves organised themselves, held a vodou ceremony calling for their liberty and went out with a guerilla war to defeat Europe’s most powerful army.

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Plantations were taken by force, or by using more subtle methods, such as poisoning their masters.

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In 1804, Haiti went on to become the first independent nation in Latin America; it is the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere (after the US); and the oldest black republic in the world. The three main players in the fight for Haiti's liberty were Jean Jaques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.

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Set in the grounds of the ruined old sugar plantation Habitation Chauteaublond, the museum courtyard features a collection of antiquated material relating to the sugar cane industry.

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17th century water mill, brought over from England, was used to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

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The guide turns the water on for us to show the wheel in operation. As we are the only people in the museum, it makes sense not to have the mill running continuously.

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As well as hydro-power, animals were used to operate this traction wheel.

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Vats for boiling the sugar cane to make molasses for export to Europe where it would be fermented to make rum.

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Belonging to the Haitian American Sugar Company, S.A. (HASCO), this – the first train in Haiti – was used for transporting sugar cane from the fields to the processing plants.

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Relais de Chateaublond Restaurant
Although the gorgeous on-site restaurant is famous for its selection of flavoured rums (such as passion fruit, anise and various herbs), we stick to Diet Coke with our lunch.

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Croix des Bouquets

In the suburb of Noailles is the commune of Croix des Bouquets, famed for its metalwork artisans. The flamboyant movement of recycling metal into art was started some 60 years ago and today there are over 1,000 artisans working in Croix des Bouquetes, hammering away to create intricate masks and other wall hangings from discarded oil drums, car parts and even kitchen utensils.

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We visit the workshop of Jacques Eugene, a renowned artist who was born here in Croix des Bouquetes and now employs several other locals in his studio.

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Like most of the artists, Jacques takes his inspiration from vodou, creating extraordinary wall hangings which are as bizarre (to us) as they are curious.

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Jacques explains the process from the raw material to the finished product: the oil barrel is cut open, burnt and flattened, then a pattern is traced on the surface. The rest is done with a hammer and chisel, metal cutters and artistic skill.

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This handsome mask now hangs proudly in my living room along with the two masks we wore for Jacmel carnival and the one I bought at Milot (well, I had to have something to do while David and Kyle were visiting the Citadelle – that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

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In addition to the intriguing masks, one of the most popular designs for steel drum art is the Tree of Life, a symbolic image with a cultural significance to the people of Haiti. Representing immortality, new life, blessings and fertility, the branches of the tree reach into the sky, while the roots burrow deep into the earth; uniting heaven, earth and the underworld. Having seen several different variations on walls in our hotel rooms as well as restaurants, we are keen to pick one out to bring home.

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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Making our way back to Hotel Le Plaza (again), we are stuck in a traffic jam (again). The cars are completely stationary, and we soon become aware that several cars in front of us make a turn. Serge goes off to investigate what the problem is, and comes back to explain that there was an accident between a car and a motorbike, and all the bystanders have taken the side of the motorcyclist. They then set about beating the car driver, who very wisely retreated to the safety of his vehicle. That didn't stop the mob apparently, and now they are pelting his car with stones. Justice Haitian style!

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We also decide to get out of here before this escalates. That means driving through a 'less-than-salubrious' neighbourhood, and we are advised to close the windows and put the cameras away. So what do I do? Take photos of course...

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With so many cars having turned around to avoid the melee and are now travelling the opposite direction, the traffic is still terribly slow moving, so it's a great relief to finally arrive at the hotel. This being our third visit to Le Plaza in the last week, it's like coming home.

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Feeling awfully jaded and quite unwell by now, I am rather grateful we don't have any plans for the rest of the afternoon; and after re-packing for tomorrow's journey home, we take a siesta. I notice I have the beginnings of a cold sore on my lip, something that causes me some concern after last time I had one, which developed a secondary infection, resulting a several courses of antibiotics.

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When Geffrard turns up to pick us up later, he brings me a gift from Serge: spicy peanut butter! What a wonderful surprise.

This evening we have arranged to meet up with Jacqui (the local agent) and Paul (the Bradt Guidebook writer we met in Jacmel) for dinner. Jacqui has also invited Dawn (she was at the carnival with us too), who is bringing a friend; so it is quite a happy little band who turn up at La Plantation Restaurant in Pétionville.

The cocktails are good, the food is great and the conversation is even better.

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It's a delightful way to end this tour – we have found Haiti to exceed our expectations in every way. This small nation has so much more to offer than the usual Caribbean attractions of sunshine, beaches and sunset cocktails – although it has its fair share of those too! With extremely welcoming people and an intriguing culture, I am already planning my return visit to delve deeper into its vodou customs and celebrations.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:37 Archived in Haiti Tagged beaches art planes beach history travel vacation hotel museum caribbean artisans photography cocktails revolution slavery pilot metalwork artists aerial_photography slaves spicy haiti undiscovered_destinations canon_eos_5d_iii voyages-lumiere port-au-prince port_au_prince baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou cap-haïtien haitien_revolution haitien_food haitien_art labadee cormier cap_hatien petionville croix_des_bouquets jacques_eugene sugar_cane haitian_revolution peanut_butter Comments (1)

Cap-Haïtien – Cormier Plage

Chill time!

semi-overcast 29 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day seven of our tour of Haiti by Undiscovered Destinations.

Encouraged by yesterday's bird watching, I get up at the crack of dawn to see if there is any more avian life around the grounds. I spot a couple of the usual suspects, but nothing mindblowingly exciting:

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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Palmchat

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White Necked Crow

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Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Last night we received a text from Jacqui to say she is in Cap-Haïtien this morning on business and would we like to meet for breakfast? Despite her flight being delayed out of Port au Prince, we do have time for a quick catch-up at Hotel Roi Christophe before going our separate ways. To my delight, the hotel serves the legendary spicy Haitian peanut butter. I must get some of this to bring home!

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Cathedrale Notre Dame de Cap-Haïtien

Having been picked up by the driver from our destination hotel, we make a quick stop at Place d'Armes du Cap-Haitien in the centre of town to photograph the recently renovated 18th century cathedral fronted by the modern, well equipped kiddies' playground.

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Labadie

From here the rough and winding road meanders west, hugging the cliffs above the shoreline. Locals have been fighting to get this road modernised and improved (although we see no sign of any work), as the Royal Caribbean cruise ships dock further along the coast. The cruise company has its own beach area here (known as Labadee), and restrictions which forbids the tourists from leaving the private resort have recently been relaxed. The people of Cap-Haïtien are trying their best to get a cut of the tourist dollar by offering tours of the area and enticing foreigners to spend money in local shops and restaurants (and who can blame them?), but the terrible state of the road is putting many people off and making it hard work to get to anywhere. Currently, only a small controlled group of Haitian merchants are given sole rights to sell their merchandise and establish their businesses in the resort (for a fee of course); guarded by a private security force. However, it is not all bad news, as the resort does employ 300 locals and the Royal Caribbean pays the Haitian government $12 per disembarking tourist.

What I do think is a crying shame, is that those tourists do not get to experience the real Haiti; although I guess all they want to do is relax on a beautiful sandy beach and partake in water sports. Controversially, the company continued to dock its luxury cruise ships in the private port immediately after the 2010 earthquake, although they did announced at the time that they would be donating US$1 million to fund relief efforts in Haiti.

Last month, a peaceful but rowdy protest was held here against the upcoming presidential elections in Haiti, blocking the port and causing the Royal Caribbean to temporarily suspend this port stop.

This area and village is called Labadie (whereas the private resort is Labadee), and is named after the marquis de La Badie, a Frenchman who first settled the area in the 17th century.

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View of the coastline

Cormier Plage

We are NOT heading for Labadee thankfully (I can think of few things worse than 3000 cruise tourists in one hermetically manufactured resort) – rather our destination is Cormier Plage Hotel on the beach of the same name.

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“What is going on? The hotel has no food or drink? I am not staying here!” Seeing the sign at the entrance to the hotel, I josh with Serge - it takes him a second or two to get the joke.

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We are shown to our room, which has an unusual split-level layout with a couple of extra beds.The room is large, cool and comfortable, and boasts a terrace – complete with rocking chair - overlooking the grounds and ocean beyond.

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View from the terrace

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Decisions, decision... what to do first? Rocking chair? Hammock? Bar? Swim?

Predictably, the drink wins the day.

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Swimming
It would be improper to leave here without having had a swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean. However, our venture into the sea can be more accurately described as a frolic in the waves than a swim. There is some pretty good surf going on, making it safest and most comfortable to stay in the shallows.

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At least it means I can try out my new selfie-stick with my little waterproof camera. It's not as easy as it looks – least of all because I bought a VERY cheap stick, which means the camera keeps twisting around just at the wrong moment; and without a screen at the front of the camera it is hard to figure out what the result will be like and how much of the intended subject will actually be within the frame.

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It does provide a little light amusement for a while, but I certainly won't be making a habit out of this selfie-taking lark.

Lunch
The food here at Cormier Plage is pleasant but nothing awe-inspiring. David is feeling in need of some traditional comfort food, so orders a double cheeseburger with chips, while I choose something with a little more Caribbean flavour - shrimps creole with rice.

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We're not beach people per se, but we are more than happy to spend a day or two by the ocean. Sunbathing is not our style, but there is something very relaxing about watching the waves from a white, sandy beach, and strolling around the extended leafy gardens with its tropical vegetation, birds and lizards.

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Black Crowned Palm Tanager

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Broad Billed Tody

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Grey Kingbird

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Palmchat

Eureka!
I finally manage to photograph a hummingbird – although not a brilliant picture as it caught me unawares and was there and gone in a flap of a wing - I can safely say my holiday is now complete!

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Hispaniolan Emerald

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The resident cat is on the prowl for an afternoon snack. Lizard is on the menu, but he has to catch it first. He does.

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Thankfully lizards are in plentiful supply here, in the trees and on the walls. I love these little critters who epitomise the tropics for me.

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I thought I heard Danish spoken at lunch, and my suspicions are confirmed when we discover the Danish Consulate in the grounds of the hotel. So... what does a 'day at the office' look like? "Hmmm, spent the morning on a deck chair on the beach, followed by a seafood lunch overlooking the Caribbean, then some emails on my laptop in the beach bar..." What a life! Actually, they probably work very hard and I am only jealous that none of my workplaces were as exotic.

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All this excitement is tiring you know, so David puts his feet up in the rocking chair.

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Or should that be hammock?

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"I can hear the sea..." Not surprising after a couple of those potent rum punches!

We are so inspired by these hanging coconut shell lights that we immediately start working out how to incorporate this idea into the refurbishment of our garden gazebo back home. Nothing unusual there, as the last few days of almost every holiday sees David making plans for another home renovation project.

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Dinner
Perusing the menu for dinner, the waiter informs us that they have no fish and no beef. A beach restaurant with no fish? Unbelievable! So that leaves chicken, chicken, chicken or goat. We choose chicken.

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Chicken curry

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Diablo chicken

As the bar (and restaurant) is devoid of any life, we retire to our room instead. We do happen to have a bottle of rum....

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:19 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds sunset beach vacation holiday caribbean hammock palm_trees tropical rum haiti hummingbird undiscovered_destinations rum_punch cap-haïtien carmier_plage labadie labadee cormier Comments (2)

Port au Prince – Cap-Haïtien

Palace Sans Soucie and Citadelle la Ferrière - incredible UNESCO Heritage sites

sunny 32 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our tour of Haiti arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

An early start this morning for our transfer to Aérogare Guy Malary (the domestic airport) for the short flight to Cap-Haïtien. Even at this early hour (we leave the hotel at 06:15), there is quite a lot of traffic on the streets of Port au Prince, with many more people walking to work. One young lad jumps on the ladder at the back of our van to catch a free ride for a while, then knocks on the roof when he wants to be let off.

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There is not much action at the airport – we are supposed to be meeting an American guy called Kyle here, who is joining us for the day. Meanwhile we hang around, eating the packed breakfast provided by the hotel.

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Kyle eventually turns up – his driver took him to the international airport rather than the domestic one, so he had to grab a taxi to bring him here. To add insult to injury, his flight ticket has been cancelled, so he is put on standby. Kyle is very laid back about it all, and we keep our fingers crossed as we watch people arrive in the waiting room. His luck is in - fortunately not all the booked passengers turn up and Kyle is on the flight!

It's only a small plane, and I sit right at the front with a good view of the cockpit. When the pilot arrives, I ask him if he is able to fly over the Citadelle for me to take some photos, and he promises to try.

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My view is restricted by the engine, but I still get a reasonable good look out over the spreading metropolis that is Port au Prince as we take off.

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The urban sprawl soon gives way to mountains as we head north.

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It's only a 30 minute or so flight, and about half way through, the captain beckons me to come forward into the cockpit just as the imposing Citadelle la Fèrriere comes into view, perched spectacularly atop a craggy peak.

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As we pass the fortress, the pilot dips his wing so that we all get a good view, even through the side windows with the engine in the way.

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What a star!

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Sans Souci

From Cap-Haïtien airport we are whisked to Milot, where we meet with Maurice, our local guide.

Sans Souci palace was constructed in 1806 for King Henri Christophe to concentrate all administrative functions of the monarchy around the royal residence. The gates were allocated according to rank – only the king could enter through the middle gates, and the soldiers used the door on the right.

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The building you can see with a domed roof, is a catholic church.

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Originally decorated in European style, the palace was looted after the king's death in 1820 and later suffered damage during the earthquake of 1842 before gradually turning into the ruins you see today.

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Christophe had this palace built (along with his fortress which we will be visiting after this) for three reasons:

1. to defend the country from the French
2. to defend his kingdom from enemies from the south (Haiti was divided in two at that time)
3. to show the world what a great nation Haiti was and what it was capable of

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When Napoleon sent two spies to Haiti to report back on how the palace was organised for a possible raid, Christophe tricked them into believing that he had an enormous army. The French envoy stood in this very position at the top of the stairs (below), while Christophe's soldiers marched down the steps opposite.

Christophe's entire troupe of one thousand soldiers paraded down the stairs, then snuck around the back and up into the palace, changed into another set of uniforms and filed down those steps again (and again and again...); thus giving the French spies the impression that Haiti had a ten thousand-strong army!

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Christophe greatly admired Napoleon. So much so, that he had his portrait hanging in one of his galleries. When news reached him that Napoleon had been captured alive, Christophe tore down the picture, tearing it to pieces with the words: “Great men should never survive!”

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Later, suffering from illness and fearing a coup, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, aged 53. The deed was done in this very room (below), using the silver pistol we saw in the museum on our first day in Port au Prince.

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Fearing attacks from the French as well as the southerners, security was strict at the palace. The guards in the sentry box would stop any visitors, and if they were unable to show the right ID, it was straight to the dungeons. Fortunately Maurice doesn't exercise the same defence policy!

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The palace complex also includes the Queen's apartments,

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her pool and fountain,

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and a printing press. Christophe's philosophy was that all children should receive a decent education.

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Having been here before the palace was built, the authorities are now trying to keep this 300 year old star apple tree alive. It was known as the Justice Tree, because the king used to sit under its branches, handing out judgement to his people.

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Kyle turns out to be quite the mountain goat, and he climbs a crumbling old wall for a better view of the palace from above.

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We take our photos from the safety of terra firma.

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Citadelle la Ferrière

From Sans Souci Palace, we continue up the hill to Citadelle la Ferrière.

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This is the number one tourist attraction in Haiti, and the most common way to reach the towering heights of the fortress, is on horse back.

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As I am adamant that there is no way I am going to subject any horse to the weight of my body, Maurice tries to organise a 'rhino' for me. I struggle with the thought of a one-horned African animal with a saddle on its back ferrying me on narrow stony paths in Haiti... especially after my last close encounter with a rhino. I am therefore very relieved to know that the 'rhino' they refer to is in fact a small motorised vehicle similar to a golf cart.

Unfortunately, however, the rhino is sick today. Looks like there will be no visit to the Citadelle for me then, as the 1.6 mile long track is notoriously steep and not something I relish the thought of attempting in this heat. I therefore give David my camera, wave him goodbye and stay behind with the horse handlers, self-appointed guides and souvenir vendors; while David mounts his horse and rides into the great unknown with Kyle, Serge and Maurice.

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David has never really been at ease on a horse (he has similar memories of Peter the Plodding Pony as I do of rhinos), so I am impressed that he manages to take photos while riding!

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At the top, riders alight the horses onto cannons, some of many still left around the grounds of the fort.

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It is customary to buy the horse handlers a drink from the conveniently positioned vendors (above), while the horses get their own water and are left to graze as the tourists explore.

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The imposing Citadelle was commissioned in 1805 by Henri Christophe - who at the time was chief administrator in the region, became the president of Northern Haiti in 1807 and declared himself king four years later.

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The largest fortress in the western hemisphere, it took 20,000 men 15 years to build. Created as a protection against the French, who were expected to return after Haiti's independence to re-take their colony by force, the citadel was built to be able to accommodate 5,000 defenders - as well as general / president / King Christophe and his family - for up to a year, enabling the king to use the so-called scorched earth policy in case of attack.

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The construction of the Citadelle is certainly monumental, with ten feet thick and 130 feet high walls, making it a daunting prospect for anyone to try and storm the fort.

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Three of the four sides are virtually impregnable, with only the south aspect a little more exposed. To counteract this weakness, another fort was built on a small hill nearby to protect the Citadelle from any would-be invaders choosing to attack from this direction.

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Not to mention the amazing artillery battery pointing in this direction.

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The Citadelle was outfitted with 365 cannons of different sizes obtained from various monarchs including this British one (bottom photo).

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The height of the mountaintop upon which the Citadelle resides is 950 meters, and provides an exceptional views of the surrounding landscape, something which was the main factor of the fort's position - King Christophe and his men were able to observe any ships arriving at the coast. Apparently it is even possible to see the eastern coast of Cuba (140km away) on a clear day.

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Under Christophe's policies of corvée, or forced labour, the Kingdom increased its wealth by trading in sugar; but the people resented the system. Unpopular, debilitated by a stroke, and concerned about being overthrown, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, by which time the Citadelle was only 95% completed. His body is allegedly entombed within its walls, as is that of his brother-in-law (below), who died in an accidental explosion.

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The fort complex included a printing shop, garment factories, a hospital, schools, a distillery, a chapel, and military barracks.

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And apparently a pizza oven!

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One of the more impressive features is the rainwater collection system on the roof. With a lack of underground water (the Citadelle is built directly onto the rock), the fort was constructed so that rain could be utilised to supply its inhabitants with water.

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Citadelle la Ferrière was never put to the test, since the French did not come came back to reconquer Haiti; and the fort was later abandoned.

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Lakou Lakay

We too abandon the Citadelle and make our way to Lakou Lakay Cultural Centre for lunch. Run by Maurice (our guide) and his family, the aim of the centre is to preserve the rich cultural traditions of Haiti including folk dance as well as teaching local children to read.

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There are many beautiful items for sale in his small boutique, all locally made.

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In the grounds of his property grow various fruit trees, including this soursop tree. The leaves are thought to cure cancer and the juice made from the fruit cleanses the blood. We have become rather partial to this drink, so it is good to hear that it has medicinal properties too.

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We are greeted by Maurice's beautiful daughter with a bowl of water and some soap; so that we can be nice and clean in preparation for tucking into the delicious spread provided: there is chicken, vegetables, fried plantain, diri djon djon (rice cooked with the juice from black mushrooms), potatoes stuffed with fish...

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… with a special mention to the hot pickles. For many years now I have graded chillies and spicy food on a 1-10 'Grete Scale'. Since arrived in Haiti, much to Serge's surprise, I haven't found anything spicier than a 6. These chillies, however, are super HOT, and I would say they are a good 8.5 or even a 9! Pretty mind-blowing stuff!

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After lunch we need to drop Kyle off at the airport for his flight back to Port au Prince. Unlike his outbound flight this morning, the check-in process goes without a hitch, and we are soon on our way across town, leaving Kyle to wait for his flight.

Cap-Haïtien

Cap Haïtien was an important city during the French colonial period, serving as the capital until it was moved to Port-au-Prince in 1770. Again after the revolution in 1804, Cap Haïtien became the capital of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti until 1820. The town is now a mix of a shabby and somewhat seedy port area and a much more charming 'down-town' section where brightly painted, well-kept houses mingle with dilapidated and crumbling properties.

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Wherever we go, there is traffic. Always traffic. Which is one of the reasons the waterfront area looks like it does - a whole swathe of buildings have been removed to make way for a brand new freeway.

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And well turned out school children. As per education policies, children are not allowed to turn up at school looking in any way unkempt. However poor the family may be, their kids always look immaculate: neatly pressed uniform, hair with half a dozen or more bows, highly polished shoes. Just like the children back home in England. Not.

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Hotel Roi Christophe

At this point I must have a little whinge about my lack of linguistic abilities. OK, so I am bilingual in Norwegian and English, I speak enough German to just about hold a simple conversation, and I can order food in Spanish; so why, oh why, do I struggle so with French? Pourquoi indeed. To me the pronunciation is just totally illogical: take the word roi (meaning king) for instance. How on earth this word goes from being written roi, to being pronounced wah is beyond me. (See here for the correct pronunciation).

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Anyway, back to the hotel, named after Henri Christophe, the former slave and a key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. Christophe created a separate government in this area and in 1807, three years after the end of the revolution and independence of Haiti from the French, he was elected President of the State of Haiti, as he named that area. Alexandre Pétion was chosen as president in the South. In 1811, Christophe converted the state into a kingdom and proclaimed himself Henry I, King of Haïti.

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Touted by Lonely Planet to be the most charming hotel in Cap HaÏtien, the Roi Christophe is a delightful colonial building from the 18th century. Once a palace belonging to a French governor, it now has a Spanish hacienda feel to it.

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The moment we arrive I am in love with this place. So much greenery, so many little gems hidden away amongst broad leaved banana shrubs and flowering hibiscus, such as intimate seating areas and eclectic art.

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There are several bar areas dotted around, although the service is more than a little slow... funnily enough, having tipped well when the first drink is brought out, the speed of the server suddenly increases rapidly.

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Eventually we settle on some chairs by the pool, overlooking several large trees for some bird watching. With a drink of course.

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While we haven't seen many birds here in Haiti up until this point – the Roi Christophe grounds are overrun with the endemic Hispaniolan Woodpecker!

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I have never seen so many woodpeckers in any one place – everywhere we look there is another one – I count at least a dozen!

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Parents flit back and forth feeding their babies, and some even seem to service two nests at once. How does that work?

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They may be pretty birds, but look what they've done to the poor trees!

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Also spotted in amongst the foliage is the Hispaniolan Palm Crow and the Palm Chat – both endemic to this island; the more widespread Grey Kingbird and the near-endangered Plain Pigeon.

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Palmchat

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Grey Kingbird

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Plain Pigeon

We see what initially looks like a 'blob' (a fruit maybe?) high in a tree, and wander off to investigate. The 'blob' turns out to be a large bird, but we are really not sure exactly what it is. After further inspection, a lot of discussions, and googling on our phones, we decide it is a juvenile Yellow Crowed Night Heron.

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Seeing several adults in the same tree later, including a nest, seems to confirm our suspicions.

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There might not be a great variety of birds here, but there are certainly more than we have seen anywhere else in Haiti; and it's such a charming place to while away a few hours that we are almost sorry when the light fades and it's time to get ready for dinner.

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Dinner

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Not particularly memorable, but the Griot de Porc is very tasty, albeit a little too fatty and bony for me. The fried plantains, however, are the best we've had so far on this trip!

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The flan (vanilla/caramel pudding) is quite nice.

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We have another couple of drinks before retiring to bed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:58 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds traffic horses history travel ruins hotel fort flight palace canons caribbean unesco photography airline revolution woodpecker chillies pilot aerial_photography spicy haiti bird_watching horse_riding fortifications citadelle cap-haïtien sans_soucie citadelle_la_ferrière sunrise_airways cap_haitien roi_christophe haitien_revolution fotress canon_balls lakau_lakay haitien_food haitien_art soursop school_kids yellow_crowned_night_heron fried_plantain Comments (1)

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