Before I started my PhD, and started to learn more about the Caribbean and its many, colorful nations, I didn’t know much about Haiti. For the most part, American media focused on negative aspects of the country that shares the island of Hispanola with the Dominican Republic. I knew about the earthquake there, which shattered Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and brought the world, or so I thought, to their aid. Besides poverty and natural disasters, my time as an ecology student also taught me that Haiti had major problems with deforestation since they were said to only have 2% of their forests left (in reality this is likely to be closer to 20%). These weren’t fair depictions of the True Haiti, however.
A Fascinating History
When I began my research, I started reading more about the history of Haiti. In 1803, the country’s people (many of whom were enslaved) freed themselves from France. Haiti was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to do so, and it has a proud heritage of freedom and resilience. The massive fortress of Le Citadelle is a testament to the perseverance of the Haitian people. And while most still associate the French language with Haiti, it is really Haitian Creole, a language unique to the country, that most people speak (although many Haitian’s speak two or more languages).
Religion in Haiti
Another special aspect of true Haiti is the religion of Vodou (or Voodoo). Although many American movies have painted Vodou as a form of witchcraft with curses, Voodoo dolls, and even zombies, doing some reading on the topic reveals that this is a gross misrepresentation of the religion. In fact, Vodou is a mix of European, African, and native beliefs. Practitioners believe in a single, creator god or the Good God, who is sometimes seen as sharing an identity with the Roman Catholic deity. Like many religions in Africa, particularly on the Guinea Coast where many of the people brought to Haiti as slaves came from, Vodou holds that there are many spirits, good and bad. These spirits are more involved in the lives of regular people than the Good God, and the primary ones among them are often associated with Catholic saints. Like any religion, it has good and bad, as a reflection of humans themselves, but it is not the boogie monster that movies make it out to be.
Learning On the Go
Of course, without visiting a place, it is hard to really get a sense for what it’s like. So, when I had the opportunity, I took a tour of the country to learn more. I picked up a few interesting things, although this merely scratches the surface of true Haiti.
To outsiders, Haitian people often seem straight-faced and serious until you smile at them. Being friendly, genuine, and respectful is the way to see how kind the people of Haiti really are. They are also just as resilient as their ancestors, finding ways to survive and thrive even while the rest of the world seems to work against them. Many of them are artists, capturing beauty in unique ways that can’t be found anywhere else. Their food reflects their creativity, rich in flavor and hearty in nature (and their plantains are superior to the Dominican Republic recipe, I had to say it!).
Finally, I discovered that the misinformation about Haiti can haunt you if you decide to travel to this Caribbean nation. Before I left, I made my mother very nervous by discussing my trip there, and when I arrived, there were people that scoffed at me for my decision. Even now that I have returned home, people are incensed by the idea that I went there just to explore. But the key to seeing Haiti safely is going with a tour company or someone who knows how to drive, respect local customs, and stay safe in the country. Other than that, true Haiti is a place rich in history and culture, and well-deserving of the attentions of adventurous travelers.
Safety and Respectful Travel Tips
(1) Do not attempt to drive yourself in Haiti; hire a driver. Visitors will have no idea what the traffic rules are, and local drivers/guides are better equipped for the road conditions.
(2) Be aware of volatile areas (especially in Port-au-Prince) and stay away from them. Again, going with a guide will make this much easier and safer.
(3) Do NOT take pictures of people without their permission. This is a general rule of thumb, but often visitors seem to forget this when visiting Haiti. No one wants their picture taken without their knowledge. If you do ask, be prepared to offer a little money.
(4) While tempting, try not to give money to people begging. It is far better to support Haitian businesses by buying food at local restaurants, buying arts and handicrafts from artisans, staying in hotels run by local people, and supporting local guides. Bring your business and a better image to Haiti. There are so many amazing, talented, innovative people there, looking for the resources to support their career and their country.
(5) Learn a few words in Haitian Creole. French may be the language of the cities, but everyone knows Haitian Creole and its the really heart and soul of true Haiti.
(6) Go with the right attitude. Haiti is not an easy place to go, and you will see hard things, but remember, everyone already knows about Haiti’s struggles. Look for the story few people are telling, and see the potential in this country. It’s time to shine a light on all the good things that Haitians are doing to build their country up.
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