“Sonja Lapli Ki Leve Mayo Ou” (Remember the rain that made your corn grow) – Haitian Proverb
Driving in Haiti is not for the faint at heart. It takes a certain breed of traveler to come to Haiti and even a more particular kind of traveler to drive across the country. To say that the roads are treacherous would be an understatement. In all my travels to remote parts of the world where I deemed the roads to be bad, I have never ever experienced such potholed, rugged, rough and perilous roads as I have in Haiti.
What I found most shocking of all is that the roads in the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, are perhaps the worst. Getting around in the capital can take hours given all the washed out, rutted roads, the broken down cars left in the middle of the street, the congestion of way too many cars, people, motorcycles and trucks on the roads, and the chaos of it all. Hurricanes, earthquakes, heavy rain and other natural disasters have continued to wreak havoc on Haiti’s already overwhelmed infrastructure. So has poverty. Yet what makes matters worse is the fact that poor governance, bad management of international aid money, corruption and greed have not fixed the insanely bad infrastructure. Hopefully they will someday.
Needless to say, you must be mentally prepared to drive in Haiti. It takes patience, an open mind and a strong desire to see the real deal, the real Haiti. For my adventurous, curious soul, our drive across Haiti from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien was perhaps the most profoundly eye-opening experience of the entire trip. After two visits to Haiti, I felt like all the pieces finally come together and I understood her.
We rose early to prepare for our estimated 5 hour drive to Cap-Haïtien. We left just as the sun was rising over the valley below our hotel perched high up in the hills above Port-au-Prince. As we drove down the main road from Pétionville, the city began to come to life. Street vendors were out setting up their stands of everything you can possibly imagine to be for sale on the side of the street: Fresh produce, clean drinking water in tiny plastic bags, used clothing, tires, bicycles, mattresses, electronics, cellphone chips, shoes, electrical wires, books, pots and pans, and even TVs. I finally figured out where all my donated stuff to Goodwill ends up. On the streets of Port-au-Prince to be resold.
We left before 7 because if we left any later, it could take us over two hours to get down from the neighboring suburb of Pétionville to Port-au-Prince. It is the only road connecting this well-to-do, wealthy suburb of expats, government officials and businessman with the chaos of downtown Port-au-Prince where they work. If one car breaks down along the way, it is over.
We passed through the center of town just as everyone was commuting to work. Lines and lines of people stood waiting along the roadside for their chance to get on an over-crowded tap-tap, Haiti’s decked out pickup trucks that provide transportation for the public. Sometimes there is an all out fight between two people trying to push their way on the last remaining spot on the tap tap especially since this is the only form of public transportation in the entire city.
Motorcycles pass by with three, four and even five people on. We even saw a man carrying a couple of live goats and another man with a generator on his back. The motorcycles are very dangerous as they zoom in and out of traffic with their life on the line. I am sure that motorcycle accidents are a daily occurrence in Haiti.
We finally made it out of the city without too much trouble. Just the usual broken down cars, traffic jams and rugged, potholed roads to slow us down but nothing major causing us delay. We had our driver Nixon bringing our group of four woman to Cap-Haïtien. Thankfully we had a nice air-conditioned van, filled with bottled water and a few snacks for our long drive ahead. We also had quirky Nixon who despite his questionable actions proved to be an excellent driver on such crazy roads.
Cap-Haïtien is only about 148 miles/239 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince but given the road conditions it can take anywhere from 4-6 hours. Little did we know that our adventurous ride would take us a whooping 8 1/2 hours with nowhere to stop for lunch and public toilets at a minimum. Like I said, it was a trip for the adventurous soul.
Our drive took us up along the Côte des Arcadins, Haiti’s premier beach area filled with gorgeous beach houses owned by Haiti’s wealthy elite and also home to some of the best resorts in the country where foreigners come to vacation and government officials spend their weekends with their families in their luxurious beach homes.
It was no surprise that the roads dramatically improved for the next hour and a half en route to Côte des Arcadins. They were smooth and flat and it was a relief given my tendency to get car sick. The views of the ocean and countryside were stunning and it was hard to believe that only an hour away was so much poverty and squalor. It felt like an entirely different country.
As soon as we passed Côte des Arcadins, the roads slowly deteriorated. This past November, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti with a vengeance causing a tremendous amount of damage and destruction especially to Haiti’s already fragile infrastructure. The roads went from good to not so good to bad and then very very bad. The rest of the trip ended up taking hours and hours of time, through very rough roads. I realized early on that it was going to take a long time to reach our final destination, so I decided to sit back, relax and enjoy the experience.
We passed through many towns and villages along the way and several roadside fruit and vegetable markets. Feeling hungry we decided to stop at a one market and were swarmed by the mango sellers. For $1 we bought an entire bucket of fresh mangos and the women wanted to sell our car even more. We agreed to buy one more bucket and later gave the mangos away to a village school since there was no way our group of four could eat 30 mangos! Yet the desperation in the women’s eyes to sell something and earn some money was difficult to see. We didn’t stop at any more markets.
I was surprised to also see the contrast between deforestation and verdant countryside. Parts of Haiti look like neighboring Dominican Republic with its mountains and mountains covered in lush vegetation whereas other parts are awash in deforestation. Deforestation is a major environmental problem in Haiti as when it rains, it causes dangerous, life-threatening landslides. Yet poverty has given many rural Haitians little choice but to cut down the trees and sell the wood for charcoal. Although it is illegal, for many people it is the only way to feed their family and survive.
As the drive continued, we hit some construction which was a good sign that the damaged roads are actually being repaired. However, it also meant it would take us even longer to get there. By this point, it was well past lunch time. There was no where we could safely eat either. Thankfully we pulled into a gas station that had a small store where we were able to buy some nuts, a jar of peanut butter, and bread to tie us over. The mangos were already long gone.
The last two hours of the drive was the worst. By this point we were all sore, tired and hungry feeling desperate to get out of the car and stretch our legs. We went through a few villages until we finally arrived in Cap-Haïtien just in time for rush hour. Traffic was bad and we had a hard time finding our hotel. It was time to hire a motorcycle to show us the way.
We pulled into our hotel just in time for sunset and a drink at the lovely terrace overlooking the ocean. Just like the roads, our hotel was in the process of being renovated but it was still lovely. Once I had a glass of cold white wine in my hand, I could relax a bit and reflect on what a crazy day we had getting to Cap-Haïtien. Our tour guide, Natalie asked if we would have rather flown to Cap-Haïtien instead of taking the long, harrowing drive. Flying would have taken less than an hour. Yet as the true hard core traveler that I am, I never would have seen the real Haiti if we simply boarded a plane. What a mistake that would have been.