Day 9: San Juan
We arrived back in San Juan bright and early. The last night on the boat had been the roughest night yet. The ship was flying through the water, and, as I tried the pack, we were heavily rocking back and forth. I started timing my walks across the room to when I’d be walking downhill to make it easier on myself. Unfortunately it was enough to send my stomach into a panic and I eventually jumped on the bed with Aaron’s Dramamine praying that my dinner would stay in my stomach. Luckily, when I woke up in San Juan everything was still.
Disembarkation was even easier than embarkation and we wandered off the boat into San Juan just after 8:00am. We took a taxi to the airport and picked up the rental car and then headed into Old San Juan to walk around and see the forts.
San Juan’s streets are made from a beautiful blue cobblestone/brick that was (according to the internet) created by the Spaniards from iron slag and was loaded onto the ships that sailed to Puerto Rico as ballast. Upon arrival, it was no longer needed as ballast because gold and rum and such would be ballast on the way back so it was used to pave the roads.
San Juan reminded me a lot of Madrid, with colorful buildings, small one way streets, and tiled street signs in the corners of buildings, it all felt very familiar. Then we fled to the Museo de las Americas after it started raining heavily on us and stumbled into what looked like the Plaza Real.
Deciding the rain had abated enough, we headed into the fort. It was a massive fort and very easy to get lost in (meant to confuse enemy soldiers, but also works on tourists). We wandered through it, enjoying seeing the little garitas (lookout towers) and reading about the history of the fort.
Finishing up at the fort we walked to the Paseo del Moro which is a walkway that runs along the outside of the fort, sandwiching people between the water and the walls of the fort. We were supposed to take the opportunity to admire the walls of the fort, but we mostly admired the colony of feral cats that lived on the outside of the walls and watched for the dolphins that were swimming in the bay.
As we walked we found this awesome, umbrella filled walkway that looked exactly like one that I had seen in Serbia. It was so full of people, and it was getting dark, so it was hard to take our own selfie. But I was able to capture this couple’s magnificent selfie.
We finally called it a day and got dinner at a restaurant in Old San Juan that apparently everyone else also likes to go to because it was packed! So packed that we waited forty five minutes for a table and then we sat there for about an hour before we reminded them that we had ordered food and they rushed to bring it out in about five minutes.
Day 10: San Juan
Day 2 in San Juan was dedicated to El Yunque National Park. We woke up early in an attempt to beat everyone out there and arrived just in time to take the last parking spot at the base of the only hiking trail that was open. The trail first had a steep climb up to an observation tower and then continued along the mountain for about a mile before steeply climbing up to El Yunque Peak. The hurricane had badly damaged the national park so only a few places in the park were even open.
After doing the 2,100 foot climb, 4.5 mile hike up the volcano on St. Kitts, we felt confident in our ability to do this 1,000 foot climb, 2.25 mile hike. Despite the fact that it should have been half as difficult, they felt similarly difficult. The trail was far better maintained, with the first half being entirely on a raised concrete walkway. The second half was a marked path, and the only climbing we had to do was over one fallen tree.
When we finally got close to the top it started raining on us. When we got all the way to the top, we found ourselves in the middle of a cloud. It was a familiar feeling.
Eventually the clouds lifted a little bit and we were able to take a few photos that weren’t entirely on the fog surrounding the mountain peak.
We hiked down in double time (dare I say we ran down?) and found ourselves at the bottom starving. We made one quick stop at Yokahu Tower on the way out so I could admire the view and pick up a key chain, and then we were on our way to lunch.
Unfortunately everyone else was ALSO on their way to lunch and so our forty five minute drive turned into at least an hour and a half drive. We did finally make it to a little restaurant in Piñones, a small touristy area with great beaches, and ordered plenty of food.
Back at the hotel after lunch, I tugged my parents onto the little beach next to the hotel and into the water so we could try snorkeling.
Photos temporarily missing.
The water was a great temperature, the swimming was lots of fun. It was a little too dark for snorkeling so unfortunately I didn’t do much of that. Then, of course, I went too deep without ear plugs in and managed to burst my ear drum again. Off to the doctor I go when I make it back to California.
We finished off the night with dinner at Yamburger where the food was excellent and the service was subpar (we were forgotten again; I was starting to sense a pattern).
Day 11: Puerto Rico
For our final day in Puerto Rico I had planned a special bioluminescent kayaking tour in the evening so we had up until about 3:30pm to enjoy the rest of Old San Juan. We ate breakfast at a chocolate bar/restaurant that served chocolate with almost every item on the menu. We all nonetheless managed to order meals that didn’t have any chocolate on them. I rectified that by ordering churros to finish off the breakfast.
Being in Old San Juan early in the morning meant we were able to take some photos of the streets that we hadn’t before because they had been filled with tourists.
We spent the first part of the morning exploring the other half of the fort in Old San Juan, the San Cristobal fort. This fort made the other one look small and we definitely got lost trying to see all the different corners. It felt like each time we climbed onto the ramparts we were looking out over a different area of the fort that we hadn’t yet seen.
Taking a walk around the outside grounds (okay I’ll admit it, we were looking for the exit but couldn’t find it) we came across an iguana with his lady friend. Aaron snuck up on them to take some pictures.
Eventually we did find the exit and took mom back to the hotel so she could take a break before the kayak adventure. Aaron and I ventured out on our own to hunt down street art in the San Turce neighborhood of San Juan.
At 3:50pm on the dot (or maybe a few minutes afterwards) our tour company picked us up from the hotel to take us kayaking. They drove us out to Fajardo, which I had heard of because it was supposedly home to the best snorkeling in Puerto Rico. After standing us on the shore and demonstrating how to kayak out of water, they loaded us into boats two by two so we could try to attempt to kayak on the water.
We are all well versed in kayaking and honestly this was some of the easiest kayaking we’d ever done, despite the fact that it was done in the dark. (But not that dark really because the guides were all wearing headlamps and lighting the way for us on the way back). We set out just after sunset and had the surreal experience of paddling through a mangrove forest-tunnel into a very secluded bay. Along the way our guides pointed out sleeping iguanas and we saw birds beginning to roost for the night. The iguanas were my favorites because they’d have a leg hanging off the branch (because they were asleep) and they looked just like Ginny does when she’s sleeping on the couch!
Arriving at the bay, it was mostly dark and occasionally folks were sending off fireworks (did I mention it was New Year’s Eve?). The guides gave us a brief spiel about what is bioluminescent algae (single cell organisms who light up as a defense mechanism when disturbed), what they’re usually called (dinoflagellates) and where they can best be seen (there are five year round bays in the world, three of which are in Puerto Rico, one of which we were sitting in during this explanation). The conditions have to be just right for bioluminescent algae to grow and it has to be really dark for you to actually be able to see them, so they actually do also live in California but they’re really only visible from July-October, if you’re lucky, if there’s been a warm spell, if there’s no moon, AND if you go to the right bay. In some ways, it’s easier just to fly to Puerto Rico to see them.
After the explanation the guides handed out tarps and explained that with the tarps over us, it would be dark enough to really see the algae glow. I had already been splashing my hand in the water during this explanation so I had started seeing the little flashes, but it was much better with the tarp over my head. At that point my parents, Aaron, and I all had our hand in the water and were splashing around, watching as it looked like little sparks were flying out of our hands. After about ten minutes they pulled the tarps off of us and explained that it was dark enough to see the algae without the tarps so we were free to roam the area a little bit and see the algae. Aaron and I took off, quickly reaching a speed where our wake had sparks in it, and the back of the kayak was filling with water (these were sit on top kayaks so it’s easy to fill them with water). We heard them calling people to not stray so far so we floated back towards the group and continued playing with the algae with our hands/paddles. I will say that going to see the bioluminescent algae and being able to make our own underwater fireworks on New Year’s Eve has to have been one of my better plans for how to spend that particular holiday.
All in all, I had very low hopes for the trip. I had read many reviews about the kayak trip and everyone said the experience was underwhelming and/or disappointing. So I prepared myself to barely be able to see the algae, for it be very dim, I set my expectations very low. And because of that, I had a great time! It was the northern lights all over again! The key to happiness, it turns out, is low expectations.
My one and only complaint with the entire tour was that it was advertised as a “Bioluminescent Glass Bottom Kayak Tour,” there were repeated mentions of glass bottom kayaks, we had to meet a strict weight limit to be able to use the glass bottom kayaks, I had been told the day before on the phone that there would glass bottom kayaks, and then we got there and everyone was placed into a double sit on top kayak (with no glass bottoms in sight). I had a wonderful time, but I do really dislike false advertising.
Back at the hotel, Aaron and I found ourselves awake at midnight due to an unfortunate series of events (involving a lack of quarters, a broken coin machine, and a Dennys Restaurant) and were able to ring in the New Year surrounded by fireworks going off right outside of the hotel. The Californian in me immediately went into fire hazard mode as I looked around at how close the sparks were falling to literally everything around us. It was very cool to be that close to fire works, but I couldn’t help but think it was mildly dangerous.
Day 12: Santo Domingo
Very sadly we parted ways in the airport with my parents flying home and Aaron and I flying on a puddle jumper to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. We spent approximately 30 minutes in the air. The entire flight was 50 minutes gate to gate. We landed and found a taxi to drive us to our hostel in San Juan. As we got closer, I began asking our taxi driver some questions in Spanish and he apologized for not realizing that we spoke Spanish. He immediately switched from the quiet driver he’d been to being pretty chatty with us.
We stayed at La Choza guesthouse on the edge of the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo and they put us in our own little one room cottage! It was an awesome square room with a rectangle partitioned off (so it was a rectangle within a square) and that became the en suite bathroom. The remaining room outside the bathroom became a little kitchenette and dining room while the bed was put loft-style on top of the bathroom. The whole thing was designed to be open air with lots of windows that opened into different sides of the building.
After taking a nap to catch up on missed sleep from the night before we walked out into the Colonial Zone to explore a little, and were disappointed to find that everything closed at 4:00pm and it was 4:00pm. We nonetheless got the lay of the land and figured out what we were going to get up early to see the next day as it would be our only full day in Santo Domingo.
I loved Santo Domingo a lot, but if I’m being totally honest, I probably mostly loved it because I loved being able to speak to everyone in Spanish. Folks seemed to have a little bit of English but were just as happy to stick with Aaron and I in Spanish and we were certainly happy to meet them there. Santo Domingo and the Dominicans wear their country pride on their sleeves and acknowledge that it’s still a developing country:
It still struggles with cleanliness in a way that many developing countries with no centralized waste system do. The streets of Santo Domingo are incredibly dirty with trash heaped in piles on the corners and underneath signs that explicitly say not to toss trash on to the streets.
Many of the places we went in the Colonial Zone also smelled strongly of urine or feces, which was slightly unpleasant, but also something I’ve begun to just associate with large cities. Even San Francisco has its smellier side streets.
Despite the dirtier parts of the city, we were glad to visit and were excited to keep learning about the differences between Haiti and the DR. At our restaurant over dinner there was a large mural on the wall.
It didn’t seem accidental to us that Haiti was colored in all brown. Aaron guessed that this was a veiled reference to the fact that Haiti had clear cut all of its forest and was dealing with some severe environmental ramifications because of that. Despite sharing an island, the two countries have very different ecosystems and climates. Just looking at the temperature for each day was a shocking ten degree difference between Haiti and the DR. The 83 degree days were perfect for me, I was a little more worried about going to Haiti and trying to stay cool in 93 degrees + humidity.
Day 13: Santo Domingo
For our second day in Santo Domingo, we woke up early and headed over to the fort in order to catch it while it was open. The fort prided itself on being a central focus point of Santo Domingo’s history as a barricade in the past as well as a meeting ground in the more recent years. When the US had their President removed, he announced his resignation from the tower in the fort.
After the fort we headed over to go inside the Palacio Villarreal de Colon to see the inside of the palace. It was incredibly underwhelming (although we did opt to not to take the audio guide).
Finishing our to-do list in the Colonial Zone we began walking the 1.2 miles to the metro so we could find a restaurant on the other side of town that Aaron wanted to visit. Somewhat expecting an oldish and dirty metro, I was pleasantly surprised to find how good the metro was!
The metro cars were air conditioned (though the platforms weren’t, which is pretty standard), they were clean, they had great maps to tell you where they were, and the conductor got on occasionally to announce which station was next. The whole thing felt quite modern in contrast to the city itself. It was definitely built for the locals, which we already suspected given the 1.2 mile walk we’d had to do to get from the tourist area to the metro. That was confirmed after we got to the metro and realized that it’s job was to follow the two main highways through Santo Domingo and connect the residential parts of town with the industrial/business-y areas.
Finding the restaurant “Chancho’s Gusto” took a a couple of passes because it was so well disguised in the neighborhood and didn’t have a big sign proclaiming what it was. Making our way inside we found a very small restaurant that specialized in chicharrones. I’ve never been a huge fan of chicharrones, and we didn’t end up ordering any (though we did get some nonetheless). We ordered the Quibes (pronounced Key-bay, remember these) and a mofongo. We had passed an empanadas place that we wanted to try as well so we weren’t going all out on the food. The mofongo came with chicharrones on top and it was excellent. Hands down the best chicharrones I’ve ever had. The quibes were very good as well.
We swung by the empanadas place on our way back to the metro and then used our cards to take us to the station closest to the malecón (boardwalk along the ocean) so we could have a prettier walk back to the hotel. It was both a prettier walk and a much longer walk, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. There were enough trees overhead to keep us reasonably well sheltered from the sun so we didn’t overheat.
Back in the Colonial Zone we slipped into the Pantheon that I had been eyeing and we wandered through, looking at the tombstones of all the heroes of the DR and I overheard a different tour guide telling his tourists that the reason some of the tombs were left empty was to make room for the heroes that were yet to come. I liked that idea, and I hope that they leave one symbolically empty to preserve that idea that anyone could become the DR’s next hero.
We ended up getting dinner around the corner at a little sandwich shop that our hostel had recommended and it was amazing. They also sold fresh fruit juices and snacks for the neighborhood. We turned in early so we would have enough sleep before getting on the bus to Haiti the next morning.
Day 14: Haiti
We arrived at the bus station approximately two hours before the bus was set to leave (we arrived at 6, the bus left at 8). We had been warned that we’d want to be there an hour early, so in good traveler fashion we added an extra hour just in case. Surprisingly, despite the early hour, we were the third group to arrive at the Capital Coach Lines depot, and within twenty minutes there was quite a crowd. Around 7am they opened up the area, at about 7:15am they started letting us check in. During this time, we made friends with a young Haitian named something like “Felix,” despite asking him a few times and hearing his name called out, we couldn’t quite capture the pronunciation. He was the wonderful type of person who gets along with everyone, helps lost travelers, and goes through the world with a carefree smile on his face. He was excited to hear that we were traveling to Haiti and took it upon himself to make sure we made it through the journey to our hotel safely. Starting with helping us get checked in and our bags checked on the bus (Felix spoke Spanish, French, and Creole, making him the ideal translator for us. The bus station was full of French and Creole speakers, and the staff spoke Spanish with an accent that I had trouble understanding. With all the noise it was occasionally hard to understand what was happening).
The bus ride to the border was reasonably uneventful, Aaron slept a lot, I slept a bit, we admired the countryside and I took a few pictures of the green mountains.
PHOTOS FROM BUS RIDE
Arriving at the border we were told to get off the bus because we were at immigration. We grabbed our stuff and our passports, our confirmation of flights out of Haiti, the hotel information, everything we thought we’d need and then we got off the bus. The border has a market built up around it for Haitians and Dominicans to trade goods back and forth. It was on the border of a lake and it felt like the desert. The ground was a hard dirt road, there were cactuses on the hills surrounding us, and it was hot. After getting off the bus we had no idea where to go, so we waited until some of our Haitian companions who knew what they were doing got off as well. We then followed them over to a U-Shaped building with a huge crowd of people. We had lots of people offering to take our passports, to take our pens, to fill out our documents for us, we declined all of them. Then an official looking person walked us over to the line where we would pay the customs fees. I was pretty sure we had already paid those, but then again, I really wasn’t sure what was going on. The enclosure had windows at different points saying things like “Arriving,” “Leaving,” and “Cashier.” Luckily, Felix noticed us and came over to save the day by confirming that we had already paid, and we needed to be in the “Leaving” line. He dragged us over to the leaving line, laughing, and then stood in line with us while we waited. Making it up to the window, the bus staff were answering any questions and providing translations, and getting us through this step. We handed over our passports and customs documents and then the staff person told us to get back on the bus. We wound our way through the lines of people and followed Felix back to the bus.
The border crossing is located on a huge lake which we were excited to see was home to some flamingos!
Once everyone had made it back to the bus and had successfully left the DR we drove for about five minutes before getting off the bus and repeating the process to enter Haiti. This time there was no crowd of people (there were still folks offering to sell us things, offering pens, offering to take our passports) but we were the only group in line. Aaron and I stuck with the line that our bus staff was in (I wanted to make sure there was a translator on hand) and once our passports were stamped we were back on the bus.
Entering Haiti was an interesting experience because the desert persisted, but also because the heavily traveled dirt roads and the wind had caused the white dirt to cover all the plants in the area. It almost felt as though we’d crossed the border and suddenly we’d walked into a black and white world.
Heading into Haiti in someways it felt as though the black and white persisted. Most of the buildings were made of concrete with none of the bright colored siding that I had seen in other places. The only exception to this, was when people had taken it upon themselves to paint their houses in bright and cheerful colors. Those houses and the tap taps (shared trucks that function as the “public transportation” in Haiti) were bright spots of color everywhere we went.
Drawing nearer to Port Au Prince we started seeing huge piles of trash everywhere. I had thought Santo Domingo was dirty but it looked pristine compared to Port Au Prince. The piles of trash were all around the city and often had pigs and chickens digging through them. Most of the buildings were made out of straight concrete and we could see many buildings that had toppled due to the earthquake. We also saw many many people, mostly women, but occasionally men, carrying around things on their heads. I was incredibly impressed with the strength the must have in their necks as we passed women carrying everything from a plastic lawn chair to 25 pound bags of potatoes balanced carefully on their heads.
When we arrived at the bus station we got out and the city smelled like smoke. We now had the difficult task of finding a taxi to take us to the hotel. We knew we couldn’t just flag down a taxi, and our experience with the other passengers on the bus let us know that we weren’t likely to find anyone here who spoke Spanish or English. We figured we’d start by asking the Coachline staff to help us call a taxi and, if need be, the American embassy happened to be next door. I knew that we could always throw ourselves down on their doorstep, flash our American passports, and ask for help.
I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Luckily, Felix came in to save the day! We had mentioned to him that we weren’t sure about getting a taxi when we got to Port Au Prince, he had already warned us not to take just any taxi, along with a warning that we should be careful if we go downtown (there have been riots against the government, apparently it’s corrupt). Felix had asked the bus staff for the number to a taxi and he had called the taxi when we got into Port Au Prince. The taxi was waiting for us at the bus station, and Felix helped us negotiate a price with the driver and confirmed that the driver would be okay with accepting Dominican pesos as payment as I’d used my dollars to pay for the visas and we didn’t have Haitian gourdes yet.
With many heartfelt thanks, we bid Felix goodbye and got into our taxi.
We made it safely to the hotel where we were greeted by Philip. I had chatted with Philip previously to ensure the reservation was set and he checked in with us to make sure we had arrived alright, and then offered information about the nearest ATMs, restaurants for dinner, offered to have one of the guys at the hotel run and bring dinner back for us if necessary, and offered to have a local guy show us around the next day if we wanted. Philip was incredibly helpful and got us on the hotel wifi so I could message him through the expedia app if we needed anything else. My French was terrible at best, and most of the people working in the hotel didn’t speak a word of English. Philip told us that if we ever needed anything, to just let the front desk know that we wanted to talk to Philip and they’d get a hold of him. (This led to some amusing half-french, half-random gestures and miming conversations as I mispronounced Philip’s name, forgot how to say “talk” and just all around struggled to speak French).
We headed to the ATMs and struck out both times (they didn’t work) so we headed back to the hotel and Philip helped us get cash by charging my card to the hotel and handing some cash over. We then headed to the restaurant at the hotel next door because it was getting late and we didn’t want to stray too far just yet.
Day 15: Haiti
Waking up somewhat early, and sleeping terribly because there was a light on outside the room that shone into the room all night meaning that it perpetually looked like the sun was rising in our room all night (I woke up twice thinking we’d overslept), we went to eat breakfast at the hotel. The woman who cooks breakfast didn’t speak English, and I told her in French that we didn’t speak French. So she spoke slowly and started listing off what foods they offered for breakfast (I understood juice, and then I got lost for a bit). Luckily, an omelette was on the menu so Aaron and I understood that and she brought out two omelettes for us, lime-ade, and some toast.
Once we’d had our fill we met with our “guide” at the front of the hotel. Claude is not a registered tour guide, I don’t think those exist in Port Au Prince, but he had some experience taking tourists around and was able to get us into the places we wanted to go (which we might not have been able to do ourselves).
He brought us first around the plaza to see the statues of Henri Christophe and Jean Jacques Dessalines, two of the big heroes from the Haitian Revolution. He told us a little bit about them and then waited while we took our pictures. He was shocked that we weren’t taking more pictures, but I didn’t bring my big camera and the sun wasn’t ideal.
After the statues he brought us to the Pantheon, which I had been excited to see. It’s a history museum of Haiti and the internet describes it as having large murals that tell the history of Haiti. Claude arranged to have one of the guys in the museum walk us through and tell us about the exhibits and translate the signs and he made the entire thing worth it.
When first walking in, you see a tomb which our guide explained held the remains of Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Toussaint, and Petion. These were the heroes of the Haitian Revolution. On top of the tomb was a collection of little statues, some flags, some cannons, plan trees. It didn’t really make sense as a decoration until the museum guide held out the flag near the tomb and showed us that the motif on top of the tomb was a 3D re-creation of the drawing in the center of the flag. Suddenly it all became a lot cooler.
Heading through the rest of the museum, we were walked through the murals with the guide explaining each part of the history. Unlike the other areas we’d been to, slavery and the extermination of the indigenous peoples was covered in gruesome detail. Our guide scoffed at the idea that Columbus was a “discoverer” of the new world, “it had already been discovered, there were whole civilizations living here, he didn’t discover anything” he told us. The mural with the arrival of Columbus showed drawings of conquistadores brutally murdering the Indians and the guide explained that 4 million people had been wiped out in just 50 years with guns, germs, and steel. He also told us that the conquistadors had used dogs to hurt the indigenous people and the slaves and that’s why you’ll find that Haitians don’t like dogs (Claude told me that it had more to do with socioeconomic status. The lower class didn’t like dogs because they tended to be around strays who were untrained and would bite, middle class Haitians tended to like dogs and raised them as pets). This section of the museum had the original anchor from Christopher Columbus’s ship the “Santa Maria” which I thought was huge given it was quite a few feet taller than me, and Aaron thought was small given that he thought the anchor couldn’t hold a very big ship and he had thought the Santa Maria was much bigger.
Moving onto the section of the Pantheon dedicated to slavery the guide showed us a model of a slave plantation. We’d seen a few of these before: they’d always had the slaves going about work on the plantation, with a little white person outside the great house. This model had slaves on every corner of it working but the focus was near the center where two slaves were being badly whipped. There was a line of slaves standing around the whipping post watching, and the whole white family from the great house was also watching. The guide explained that the other slaves were forced to watch as a warning and that the family was there to teach the younger kids about discipline and running the plantation. The whole area was dedicated to showing the conditions that were suffered by the slaves who made the journey to Haiti and the living conditions once they arrived.
Moving on we arrived at the Haitian Revolution where the guide told us about the revolution and showed us a painting that depicted a mulato man and a black man being blessed by god. Apparently at the time, someone had said that the revolution and the union of the mulatos and blacks was blessed by god and that’s why it succeeded. The painting was created in the 1800s.
The next section focused on the nineteen hundreds, the four kings who had decided to rule Haiti (Dessalines was supposed to be the only royalty, but the person who came after declared himself king as well), and the dictatorship by Papa Duck and Baby Duck (as the guide and Claude called them). Both had been alive during Baby Duck’s time, though young, and could recall what it had been like. Then they walked us through every president and the fate and term length of those presidents. [Turns out that they were saying “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” and I misheard them….I did sort of wonder how they could call a dictator “Baby Duck” and not laugh every time they said it…]
All in all it was a very successful visit to the Pantheon and I was glad we’d had Claude to arrange to have the museum guy show us around. After the museum Claude walked us over to the presidential palace and a statue of a runaway slave. It was a statue of a slave blowing on a conch shell horn with a chain around his ankle, the end of which was loose and could be played with, and Claude told us that he was the first slave to runaway and encouraged others to do so and created places for them to hide in the forests.
After this we got into a taxi that Claude had stay with us for the day and we headed to the Iron Market. The Iron Market is a big covered market selling everything one might need. Claude explained that there was a tourist side of the market with artwork and trinkets, and a Haitian side with household goods but that that side was temporarily closed while they did repairs to the awning. He took us into the tourist side and worked hard to stop the shopkeepers from overwhelming us and pushing their wares on us. Eventually I found a key chain I liked and Claude helped facilitate the purchase since no one in the market spoke English. Then we continued onward.
Our next stop was the Cathedral that had famously collapsed during the earthquake. Claude normally doesn’t bring tourists there and couldn’t imagine why we wanted to go. We explained that coming from California we had a lot of earthquakes and were familiar with the destruction left behind. In a way I think we wanted to pay our respects to the tragedy. So we swung by and Claude told us the story of the cathedral collapsing.
Finished with the cathedral we headed out of downtown Port Au Prince and Claude brought us to a little voodoo artist enclave that he knew of. We chatted a little with the owner who either wasn’t interested in talking or who didn’t speak enough English to understand our questions. The place was called the Artists Resistance and when I asked what they were resisting he said that they were fighting social injustices, but he didn’t get more specific than that, nor could I see how the art was doing that in any way (other than the symbolism presented by using the trash from around the city to create art). If I had know more about voodoo I expect the place would have been fascinating, so I took pictures of the ones I cared about and now I’ll have to go do some research.
Continuing on our way, Claude promised that lunch was next and brought us to Hotel Oloffson, the oldest hotel in Haiti and a reasonably expensive one. Despite our attempts to tell Claude we weren’t rich tourists, he continued believing that we were, at one point asking Aaron why he didn’t just go buy a new iPhone since his wasn’t the latest model. I expect that there is a general assumption that anyone who is able to travel to Haiti and is willing to pay someone to show them around must be affluent, certainly in comparison to the average Haitian.
The food was nonetheless excellent and Claude tried to help explain what all of the dishes were on the menu. He also ordered us the Kibby and Accra appetizers which he said were typical Haitian foods. The Accras was like little fried donut sticks. Which is the best way to describe them and they were delicious. The Kibby we recognized immediately because it looked and tasted exactly like the Quibe that we’d had two days early in the Santo Domingo (remember how I told you that would be important?). The rest of the food was pretty good, I had gotten pork which was essentially chicharrones but instead of being all meaty pieces, it was all fatty pieces and it made me feel a little sick to my stomach. We continued up the hill to Petionville which Claude explained was where the middle class lived. Downtown was where all the poorest people lived, but up in Petionville it was a middle class to upper class neighborhood. The difference was immediately evident. Everything was much, much cleaner, there were fewer piles of burning trash on the streets, it didn’t smell like smoke, most of the signs were suddenly in French rather than Creole and occasionally they were even in English. I commented on this to Claude and he confirmed that these people had a much better access to French and English language education. Petionville was also the location of the university which Claude boasted was a huge university with over 1,000 students. The whole area was much nicer and the view was incredible.
At this point I was starting to get a headache, and I was feeling pretty tired. Claude promised us just one more stop and then we would return to the hotel. We had seen down over Port Au Prince, but he also wanted us to see up into the hills, apparently it was also very pretty.
When he stopped the car, he casually said over his shoulder, you two don’t mind 5 minutes on a motorcycle right? Uhhhh, sure? We followed him over to a line of guys sitting on motorcycles, shook hands with a few of them and they pulled their motorcycles out of the line. The youngest said in English that he was going to ride “with the lady,” with a sly look over at me. He most certainly was not going to ride with the lady with that attitude. Aaron noticed one of the others was making eyes at me so he got on that guys motorcycle, the guide took the youngest who had talked, and I hopped on the back of the quietest guy’s motorcycle and off we went for a quick ride through town. I ignored the kissy noises made at me as we left and was incredibly glad I had decided not to wear my dress. It really was only a five minute drive and once we arrived Claude gave me a sort of apology/explanation and said that they kids like to practice their English whenever they meet people who speak English. At least, I assume that he was talking about the kid.
Claude would have been happy to keep walking us through the neighborhood which he told us had been originally full of the poor people and then the whole place had been bought up by middle class Haitians turning it into what it was. Aaron and I were tired and I was still battling a headache, so we said we were happy with the view we had seen. We hopped back on the motorcycles, back into the car, and back to the hotel.
Back in the hotel we thanked Claude for all of his help, he certainly had done an excellent job of keeping us safe, away from the vendors, and of showing us more of Port Au Prince than we could have dreamed of seeing on our own. We were left with just enough cash for the taxi the next morning so we ate dinner at the hotel where I knew we could pay with card and then we went back to the hotel. It was time to pack, sleep, and head home.
In the morning our taxi, arranged through Philip, brought us over to the airport quite quickly by dodging through traffic in a fashion that reminded me of the Knight Bus from Harry Potter. Upon arriving, a seemingly friendly airport staff person ushered us through the door without bothering to check we had tickets (not sure if they were assuming that since we were the only non-black people around we must have tickets because we were tourists or what but they definitely targeted us) and brought us to the JetBlue line which already had twenty or so people standing in it and filling the line. He grabbed another airport staff person who explained to us that if we tipped the first guy, he’d take our passports and check us in without us having to stand in line. I’d always been told that bribes would get me far in countries with developing economies, but I was never told that I would have people literally asking me to bribe them. We waved the overly helpful security away, telling them we were happy to stand in line, and then we joined the line. The rest of the way through the airport was quite standard and then we found ourselves back on the plane and headed home.