“Dèyè mòn gen mòn” – Haitian proverb meaning “beyond the mountains, more mountains.”
At the heart of rush hour, 4.53 pm, on January 12, 2010 the earth shook with a ferociously and cruelty like never before. In 35 terrifying seconds, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near the town of Léogâne, only 16 miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince flattening hundreds of thousands of buildings, hospitals and clinics, and killing over an estimated 200,000 while injuring and displacing hundreds of thousands more. The catastrophic earthquake and its aftermath was the worst urban disaster in the world with an unimaginable loss of life and destruction of a nation that for hundreds of years has hovered slightly above the brink of collapse.
If the death and destruction of the earthquake was unfathomable, the resulting desperation, suffering and attempts to rebuild the country was even worse revealing just how fragile the social, political and economic systems in Haiti truly are. A cholera outbreak introduced by UN peacekeepers killed thousands more. The lack of social services in rural communities brought even more poor rural migrants into the already overwhelmed Port-au-Prince to live in tents or as squatters. Meanwhile corruption, greed, and a gross mishandling of funds made the rebuilding of Haiti even harder. Billions in promised aid was never delivered. People were displaced and living in horrible conditions in tent communities. And the list goes on.
But slowly over time, Haiti was rebuilt. The rubble was removed, the roads were repaired, and hospitals, clinics, schools, and buildings were reconstructed. Then came Hurricane Mathew this past fall bringing Haiti down to her knees once again. The damage was immense- estimated to be over a billion dollars – and the country is still trying to rebuild once again. Against this backdrop, I went to Haiti.
“Ayiti Nan Kè-m” – Creole meaning “Haiti is in my heart”
I will not sugarcoat it. A week in Haiti was perhaps one of the most intensely emotional travel experiences of my life. However, if you are able to look beyond the potholed roads, the piles of trash, the unforgiving, overbearing poverty and the desperation in people’s eyes, then you will able to see something truly unique. Beauty and hope.
Juxtaposed against the stark ugliness is a beautiful resilience and strength in the Haitian people and their land. An extraordinary magical culture of music, art, food and religion. A stunning rural countryside with mountain after mountain- a sea of green against the aqua blue waters and white sandy beaches that make up coastal Haiti. A place that despite its complicated history and immense challenges, offers an outsider something extraordinarily life-changing and unique. A week in Haiti was perhaps one of the most moving trips of my life, and that says a lot given how much I have already seen throughout the developing world.
Although it was my second trip to Haiti, it was during this trip that I experienced the real Haiti. I traveled much more throughout the country than I did on my last visit, having unparalleled access to many aspects of Haitian life that is otherwise unavailable to foreigners. I saw the deplorable and the exceptional, the misery and the resilience, the beauty and the beast. And for that I am eternally grateful.
I traveled to Haiti with my dear friend Haitian-American Nathalie (Nat) Tancrede once again however this time as a tourist. Like most of the world, Natalie was very distraught by the news of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti and as a Haitian-American she felt compelled to help. Following the earthquake, Nat left her home in New York City and moved to Port-au-Prince to help rebuild the artisan sector which makes up a large percentage of the Haitian economy. With the support of many dedicated partners, she set up a network and provided business and product development training as well as marketing support to over 2,000 local artists and artisans.
During her six years in Haiti, she hosted many international visitors to Haiti including international funders, buyers, designers and bloggers (which is how I first went to Haiti in February 2015) who were always amazed by their experience in Haiti. It was nothing like they had expected given the terrible media Haiti has received. Instead, they found Haiti to be a fascinating destination filled with amazing culture, art and beauty. Of course there remained the “in your face” poverty however if you were willing to open your minds and your hearts to look beyond the ugly, the rewards of visiting Haiti are immense.
I was often regarded with blank stares of disbelief when I told people that I was going to Haiti as a tourist. Given the decades of negative press, people imagine Haiti to be a very dangerous place left in rubble and violence from the earthquake. I must be out of my mind to go to Haiti people whispered quietly behind my back with fear in their eyes. But I am not.
Tourism has the potential to jump start the economy and help rebuild Haiti, providing desperately needed jobs, forcing the government to improve the overall infrastructure of the nation. The government is well aware of the critical importance of tourism and has been promoting it hard over the past few years. A few tour operators have popped up, the first ever guidebook exclusively on Haiti was written, and roads and hotels have slowly been improved. But Haiti has a long way to go until it will be ready to welcome mass tourism like it enjoyed 25 years ago in its golden days. I would also never go to Haiti without a travel guide. This is where my lovely friend Nat comes into play.
Passionate to show the true beauty and magic of Haiti, Nat launched her new travel business “Explore with Nat”. Me and two other guests were her first customers. Nat provided a fully guided week-long trip where we visited three different cities, and embraced the magic of Haiti’s culture, history and people every step of the way. It was truly a fun, eye-opening and unique experience where we received an intimate look at Haiti behind the scenes. We met people from all walks of life and heard their unforgettable stories. We ate at local restaurants as well as some of the most spectacular restaurants in the country. We toured the most historic sites, the most pristine beaches and we also saw the slums. It was by far one of the most eye-opening, moving and life-changing trips I’ve ever had, and there is no other person I’d see Haiti with than Nat.
I have been home for only three days now but my mind is still swirling around trying to process everything I saw and learned. I am certain it will take a lifetime to understand such a complicated place. Yet one thing I can say for sure is that “Ayiti Nan Kè-m” -Haiti is in my heart.
Disclosure: I traveled to Haiti on a partially sponsored trip hosted by Nat. All thoughts and opinions are my own. If you would like to learn more about Nat’s upcoming trips to Haiti, check out her website Explore with Nat. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.