We were met at the bus stop in Cap-Haïtien by Basil, a driver for Moise, a local tour operator. Basil drove us without incident through largely stopped traffic to our hotel at the other end of town, the Roi Christophe.
Hotel du Roi Christophe is a Grand Old Hotel, like the late Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring, and Grand Old Hotels are not without their issues. Somewhere between the Grand Old Roi Christophe and the Grand Old Expedia, our reservation was lost. The hotel was fully booked, but: the proprietor put us in a room which she never rents out. Room 39 is in the new wing. The shower drain in room 39 is connected to the Wave Organ in San Francisco. Loud and melodic intermittent gurgling. Nothing is actually coming up from the drain, for which one is grateful, but the amplification of the sounds is dramatic. Perhaps the sounds would have been different, sonically, if there were hot water. There were electrical insufficiencies, but it wasn’t like the place in Kidapawan in 1988, it wasn’t even like Faith, South Dakota, in 1959, and certainly not like the Howard Johnson’s where the faucet flowed oobleck and my father really went off on the desk clerk. Hey, we slept under the I-80 viaduct for pole position at the Big Deal Art Auction.
As it happened, the next day a room in the main building became available, so the staff moved all of our luggage for us while we were touring Sans Souci. Everything was good after that. Wonderful breakfast, all days. Fish stew over yucca or cornmeal, pancakes, just great. Different juices. The grounds are pretty as well, although just past the walls, Haiti resumes, with its noise and garbage: nothing like Port-au-Prince, though. Haiti isn’t an easy environment to be a hotel owner.
Sans Souci, Haiti, is not in as good shape as Sans Souci, Potsdam. They are both UNESCO World Heritage sites, of course. But the Germans had more money. A dead king, an earthquake, and an economic blockade that lasts more than a century, leaves little but the standing walls. Basil came for us in the morning, and drove us to the village of Milot, where we met our tour guide, Maurice. Basil drove us to Sans Souci, and then we drove and walked up to the Citadel, which defended the valley from a distance. The philosophy of the Europeans was to build forts along the coast; the Haitians (who had been trained in France before the slave rebellion) took a different approach, and built castles inland, from which they could launch guerrilla raids against the European soldiers and planters who had not yet died of Yellow Fever. The rebellion was an awful thing.
Roi Christophe had a portrait of Napoleon on the wall of his bedroom, even though Napoleon had revoked the emancipation of the slaves that Robespierre had championed on February 4, 1794. Roi Christophe was OK with that, because Napoleon was a great general; but he cut the picture down off the wall when Napoleon was captured. Roi Christophe thought a good general should not be captured alive. Roi Christophe died by this belief: when he had had a stroke, and his rival Alexandre Pétion approached from the South, he shot himself with a silver bullet. Where do you get silver bullets, anyway? I mean, working ones? If you google “silver bullet eBay” you get pointed to exonumia that don’t appear to be actual cartridges that can be loaded.
Maurice wanted us to take a piece of slate from the rubble on the floor. It had been a roof tile. I don’t think much of looting World Heritage Sites, so I declined. After wandering through the palace ruins, we got back in the tour van (we were the only customers that day) and headed up to the Citadel.
The Citadel is a mile walk from the parking lot, though there appears to be a service road. There are people there selling everything. Especially, they want to rent a horse to you to ride up the hill, and also their service as a tour guide. This is where you really see the poverty in Haiti: the main reason to get a tour guide is to ward off other potential tour guides: in countries as poor as Mali and Myanmar and Cambodia, this works. But here, the touts come up to you asking to be your tour guide even though you had your own tour guide right with you. Maurice tried to whisk them away, but it was to no avail, as he was on a horse (with a boy following, whom he knows and hires regularly) and often a few feet from us. And truthfully, Winston and Arcy (the two most persistent touts) did tell us a couple of things that Maurice left out.
The Citadel is a big old castle, similar to other castles of the era.
Maurice’s ancestors were slaves in Cap-Haïtien. He is descended from the bricklayers who built the Citadel. On January 2 his grandmother would clean her grandfather’s shotgun. Maurice knows and is cousin to everyone in the town of Milot. After we’d seen the ruins of the palace and the Citadel, he took us to the Centre Culturelle, where we had the best meal of Haiti, and maybe the whole trip, if you add in the educational value: I’ve already had perfect steaks in starred restaurants, but not any of the peppers in the pickled pepper melange. There was also a sullen live band, who would probably rather have been listening to hip-hop than playing for green-eyes, but they need the money.
Cap-Haïtien traditional music is heavily influenced by the captives on a slave ship from Dahomey, which Roi Christophe liberated in 1809. The freed slaves became his palace guard and influenced the culture disproportionately. So said Maurice.
Haitian hip-hop is a separate genre. You don’t hear much Bob Marley here, in contrast to nearly everywhere in the Sotadic Zone for the last thirty years.
After lunch, we drove out toward the border and visited a European fort, Liberté, which is not a World Heritage Site, so I accepted a piece of roof tile from it. People swim off the point that the Fort is on. I sure wouldn’t swim that close to the shore in Haiti. At some point in my life, I’m likely to decide that the whole of Earth’s ocean is too polluted to risk.
By sundown we were back in Cap. We ate at the three best reviewed restaurants in Cap-Haïtien on the three nights we were there: Roi Christophe, Kokiyaj, and Lakay. Haitian food is not French. It is West African, entirely. More similar to what you get in Central America than in the other islands, especially the French speaking ones. But the cuisines of cultures without a long history of refrigeration is at least fresh. Or, salty.
Our last day in Haiti, the big accomplishment was a walk, going to the cathedral (closed for repairs), the market (you might think you don’t have agoraphobia. Don’t make a final judgment until you go here), and a cemetery, where we accidentally walked in on a Vodou cremation ceremony and walked away quickly. We also bought a couple of souvenirs at the tourist market, which was deserted as there are no cruise ships around. The Haitian souvenir industry is predictable: there is not one of anything. If you see something you like, there will be a hundred copies of it in fifty souvenir shops.
On Thursday morning, we had our last breakfast in Haiti; more fish stew over, I think it was beans, this time. A young guy across the room was looking at me wondering how he could exchange sex for money with two old white guys (my gaydar is no good but that look is evident) and then he got up and dropped the sugar bowl into the top of his boot. I looked away so he wouldn’t see that I saw but he knew that look too; and he wasn’t the coolest stud in the room any more, and he did not meet my gaze another time in the whole of breakfast. Nice looking fellow, too, in a stylish gray-lavender vest.
After some worry and another text exchange with Voyages Lumiere, Moise came to drive us to the airport. Basil joined in later. Maybe he carried one of our bags into the Departure line. It’s all families here, not individuals. Cap-Haïtien has a small airport, with a small amount of chaos. We flew to Miami, from there to Charlotte, and from there to Wilmington, North Carolina, another small airport with no chaos at all.