Visiting Haiti: My First Impressions

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“Le travail c’est le secret de la vie.” Work is the secret to life. 

(Handpainted saying at the entrance of a metal work shop in the village of Nouailles)

I recently returned from a long weekend in Haïti. And every day since my departure, I wake up thinking of this enlightening first trip to Ayiti.

Like many folks who hear the mere mention of this country, my first thoughts were to the 2010 earthquake and the memory of devastating, chaotic images broadcast all day long on US cable television. I was in Jamaica at the time, under 300 miles away.

Still, having had Haitian friends in the US who often told me of the “unseen” side of Haiti–the positive that the media rarely shares–I went there excited to see a destination they called home. One that I expected to be “more African” than the rest of the region, but also one that was reportedly getting back on its feet and investing heavily in its tourism industry in the past year.

What I experienced, in just four days of exploring Port-au-Prince and its western coast escape of Côte-des-Arcadins, left me in complete surprise. Starting with Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport–which could have easily been located anywhere in the region–I didn’t expect Haïti to feel and run as smoothly as most other Caribbean islands (silly, I know). Except, it was also a hundred times more alive, more vibrant and cultural.

Sure, there were signs of poverty along the way, but no more than I have seen in parts of say, Jamaica, Belize, or even the Dominican Republic.

What struck me the most in Port-au-Prince?

Color. So much color!

Music, movement… life, in full display around every street corner and along every major intersection.

Entire sidewalks turned flea markets, selling oil paintings, furniture, fruits, leather sandals and every possible nick-knack you can imagine.

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Soda and ice cream vendors weaving carts and containers through bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Women hopping onto motorbike taxis.

Haitians going about their daily lives, balancing baskets on their heads and passing each other in dizzying directions, somehow never colliding.

The center of Port-au-Prince, the most hard hit during the earthquake, is the most cacophonous yet exhilarating

place I’ve seen in the Caribbean. If you didn’t look closely behind the vendors’ tables–covering every bit of the sidewalks–you’d almost miss the unoccupied, earthquake-damaged buildings that stand behind their wares.

A few steps away from these enterprising men and women, the newly renovated Marché-en-Fer (Iron Market) towers over the city– a stunning work of architecture and the epicenter of shopping for locals.

Brightly-colored, hand painted buses, called “tap taps” zoom past the gated entrance like carnival trucks, blasting kompa music.

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This West African style hustle and bustle–yes, that’s what it reminded me of–blends with iconic Caribbean sights like vibrant lotto shacks called “Patience” and sugar cane vendors shaving off sticks along the roadside, waiting on thirsty passersby.

Hard working men and women, everywhere. And sayings of faith and hope, impossible to miss on buses, walls and storefronts–in French, of course.

I felt transported back to my days in Côte d’Ivoire, and the days I spent walking closely beside my mother through the chaotic, lively market areas of Treichville and Adjame.

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The energy and cultural buzz that runs through Haïti is something I have not read about anywhere, or felt in person in a long time.

Outside the city, the pace is slower and quieter–the views along the Côte-des-Arcadins as stunning as you’d expect this side of the Caribbean Sea.

As a travel photographer? I felt my heart leap into my throat more than a dozen times a day. Every direction in which I turned my head awaited a scene that resembled a painting.

At first, I found it tricky to approach people and eventually get their portraits. I was told that after the earthquake, they’d become quite fed up with cameras. When I first stepped outside, in the hilly suburb of Petion-Ville, where most hotels and stores have relocated–I felt a tad intimidated. The stares were intense, almost piercing. I hadn’t experienced that before, especially because I’m used to blending in wherever I go in this region. Smiling from a distance didn’t seem to work either.

That night, back in my room, I gave it some thought and it hit me: I was the one outside of my comfort zone. Haïti was so different than my most recent destinations– layered, complex, more raw than any place I had been to over five years, much less in this region. My senses were in full swing all day long, and I did not know what to do with them!

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Once I faced and accepted this reality of being nervous in a completely new environment, I got close to the next Haitian who stared deeply into my eyes and slowly engaged him or her in conversation, taking more time than usual (or as much time as I could while traveling with a group). And surely enough came bright white, disarming smiles (Haitians are absolutely gorgeous people by the way). I saw the desire to share, understood the curiosity behind those stares, and the hard work behind everything they do.

Yes, Haiti is a complicated place, still dealing with political woes as part of the population praises the incredible strides made by the current government and the rest protests and demands new elections. I have a lot more to learn and discover, of course, but this initial visit reminded me of how important it is to see a place for yourself.

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With millions invested in rebuilding the country–from improved roads, to renovated or brand new hotels (including an upcoming Marriott in 2015), fine dining, beachfront lounges, live music venues, and new artisan villages–it’s no surprise that Haiti is popping up on 2015 destination lists. But it was indeed a surprise that it’s come this far along this fast.

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I have an article coming up in December that will be filled with travel tips and photos–stay tuned.

After over a decade of constant visits to the Caribbean, Haiti has stirred up my passion and giddiness for travel and culture all over again.

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My trip to Haiti was sponsored by Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism. As always, all opinions are my own.

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning, Ethiopian-American travel writer, photographer and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Moon Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic (October 2016). Her work focuses on Caribbean culture and adventure, and has been published in AFAR, CNN Travel, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Every Day With Rachael Ray, among many others. Lily is also the 2016 recipient of the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for her Caribbean coverage, from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–she speaks four languages fluently and has lived in Cote d’Ivoire, England, Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and traveled to some 30+ countries around the world. Last but not least, she is a former corporate attorney who ditched her Washington DC office for the road in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a storyteller. Lily holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish (summa cum laude) from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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5 Comments

  1. Sue Dorsey 16 December, 2014 at 10:48 AM #

    Oh the colors. I would love to go there and walk and visit. The picture with the gentleman playing the guitar was magnificent. The young man working on the metalwork was another of my favorites. Loved, loved, loved it!

  2. Amanda 16 December, 2014 at 11:57 AM #

    Beautiful photos! Thanks so much for sharing. I work and live in Venezuela and often visit Caribbean islands, but Haiti was not on my list until I read your post. I just have to see all of that beautiful color for myself!

    -Amanda at http://teachingwanderlust.com/

  3. Lebawit Lily Girma 16 December, 2014 at 4:39 PM #

    @Sue – Thanks much, I’m happy it all resonated with you! I really hope you do make it there – it’s such an easy hop from Florida (wink wink)!

    @Amanda – Thank you! So thrilled you are putting Haiti on your list. I have many more details coming on why you’ll definitely want to get there. By the way, I went to Venezuela (Caracas) once, a long time ago, and still remember those mountain views!

  4. Brett Baker 21 November, 2016 at 3:56 PM #

    Wow, the memories are flooding back. Intense, and colorful, I can almost smell it. I lived in Haiti several times in the early 80’s and it has changed me forever. Love the images! I couldn’t agree more on the Haitians being a beautiful people. It seemed to me the volume is turned to 11 in Haiti. Impacting the senses and delivering a dopamine overdose. I never knew what to expect with every corner I turned. I soon learned that each corner held something unexpected and often awesome. Initially I worked for an oil company in HInche, and Saint-Marc and later taught scuba diving at Kaliko Beach. Such good times and good people. Thanks for sharing!
    Brett

  5. Lebawit Lily Girma 22 November, 2016 at 11:41 AM #

    So glad to hear, Brett! Thanks for sharing!

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