Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Coming Home!

I'm thinking about Thai food, hot showers, walking everywhere, foggy mornings, bagels with hummus, our dog Chango, my friends of course, Maya's room...

I'll write more, but now I need to go through inspection at the airport and wait at my gate. I change planes in Atlanta after a 3-hour layover, so I don't get in until very late. My great friend BJ volunteered to be the wee hour pick-up at SFO, so she's my new best friend. It will be close to 7 a.m. Dominican time by the time we get back to Santa Cruz. I will be dead, so don't call me early tomorrow!

Back in Dominican Republic

I'm just holding this space for now. After we crossed the border on Feb. 15 we stopped off at L'Oase Racquetball Club and Hotel, near Puerto Plata on the north coast of Dominican Republic. We're good friends with the owner Joseph "Jose" Kruchten and his Dominican girlfriend Vashti and her sons.

Then we went into Santo Domingo and stayed with Andre's friend Junior for two nights. I spent the whole time preparing the packet of photos, documents, receipts from our travels, Skype records, etc. to prove our relationship to the U.S. Consulate on March 25.

Andre just left me off at the airport. We'll only be separated about 6 weeks this time, our shortest separation ever. But Andre predicts it will be the hardest because this time we've really gotten used to being together. In the past five months we were rarely apart even an hour at a time. I think it'll be good for us to have some space and be able to see how we feel about each other from a distance. Mostly, I'm really looking forward to him coming to Santa Cruz. I think he's going to love it there.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Labadee, Haiti: Feb. 12-14, 2008

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Culture clash between first-world cruise ships and third-world fishing village, 2. iceberg climbing walls after the tourists leave, 3. Norm's Place, a converted French fort, 4. the major activity at Norm's is relaxing in a hammock, 5-6. Our room.

NORM'S PLACE IN LABADEE: Due to popular request, here's their website:

Labadee, a small fishing village on the scenic northern coast, was the perfect place to spend Valentine’s Day. We stayed at Norm’s Place, a converted French fort, owned by an American WWII vet and his charming Haitian wife. The truck ride from Cap-Haitien takes about 40 minutes over rough roads, then the last five minutes are done by boat. Labadee looked like Gilligan's Island at first glance.

Until you notice the huge cruise ship docked in the bay. Very quickly, we realized that village life in Labadee revolves around the Royal Caribbean cruise, which brings in lots of jobs and money for the locals.

Because of Haiti’s reputation as a violent and unstable country, the cruise literature refers to it as “Labadee, Hispaniola,” which is the name of the island that Haiti shares with Dominican Republic. Royal Caribbean owns a beach, which they fence off and guard. Inside the gates, it looks like fun, fun, fun with water park, slides, inflatable climbing walls shaped like icebergs, palapas, lounge chairs, and happy Haitians serving drinks and selling souvenirs.

I was hoping to get in and use some of the facilities or at least check out the scene, but we found out that the public is welcome only on the weekends when there are no cruise ships. They charge a reasonable entrance fee for school groups and foreign diplomats, charity workers, and locals, which I would have liked to do, but we had to leave too soon.

Norm and Angelique, our hotel owners, sell Haitian arts and crafts inside the compound. A local boat taxi ferries them back and forth. Their shop is one of four that have set prices. They pay $80 a day in rent, so sometimes they just break even, but they enjoy it. There’s a separate flea market of 500 vendors who pay $5 a day to hawk their goods. After reading the online responses from cruise ship passengers, it seems the local vendors can get pretty aggressive and you have to bargain hard to get a decent price.

Royal Caribbean also offers other activities for an extra charge, like jet skiing, kayaking, zip line, scuba diving, and the water park. We enjoyed watching grandmas and grandpas ripping around the bay on jet skis. I hadn’t seen so many white people in a long, long time, so I couldn’t help but stare through the fence at them.

Each evening, after the ship sets sail, the employees pile back into the boat buses to return home to Labadee village, loaded up with surplus food from the cruise ship’s beach BBQ. It seems to me that they must make a pretty profit off of the hamburgers, hot dogs, fresh fruit, packages of cheese and crackers. We bought some Washington state apples – the best apples I’ve had since leaving home five months ago.

We got lucky and caught a ride back into Cap-Haitien with Norm. For 83 years old, he’s an expert driver, especially on that rough, rocky, windy road. About 15 years ago, when gasoline was hard to come by, he used to hike up and over the mountain in 45 minutes – which is how long it takes in boat/truck. He’s lived in Haiti for 32 years and speaks fluent Creole. As much as I love to travel, I don’t think I could leave Santa Cruz permanently. I’ll be glad to get home for a while.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

La Citadelle, Haiti: Feb. 11, 2008

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. La Citadelle, as seen from a helicopter, 2-4. Sans Souci Palace, 5. Horseback riding without whips, 6. Taking turns walking, 7. Celestine, our guide, 8-9. Crafts vendors along the way, 10. View of the fortress, 11-14. Artillery still awaiting the French.

World Heritage Site (1982)
Largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere
Built for King Henri Christophe from 1805-1820 by 20,000 enslaved workers
Designed to store enough food and water for 5,000 defenders for up to one year
According to Lonely Planet Guidebook, there are over 100 cannons and 50,000 cannonballs, still waiting for the return of the French.

La Citadelle is considered one of Haiti’s top tourist attractions. Supposedly, tour groups make a day trip from the Dominican Republic to visit this hilltop fortress, about 17 miles south of Cap-Haitien on the north coast of Haiti.

After going there myself, I don’t see how tour groups would manage. The Citadelle is definitely worthy of thousands of tourists, but I wonder how many actually make it. We arrived in the town of Milot, where the ruins of Christophe’s palace Sans Souci is located, around 11:00 a.m. and left, chasing the last bus, around 6:00 p.m. During that whole time, we saw only one group of three Haitian tourists. They drove four miles up the hill in a private 4-wheel-drive car, then rented horses to ride up the last mile or so. But even that would be too adventurous for most foreign tourists.

We went the rough route: walked from our Cap-Haitien hotel to the tap-tap station and crammed in the back of a pick-up to ride a mile to the bus station. There we sat in an old American school bus for an hour while they hustled enough passengers for standing room only. The road to Milot is full of potholes, so the ride is slow and jolting. Once there, we negotiated three horses and a guide to make the long five-mile journey up the cobblestone road to the mountaintop. Fortunately, the day wasn’t too hot.

The worst part for me was the way they treated the horses. I love horses, as did my daughter Maya. Andre also enjoys horseback riding. So we were looking forward to the trip. But when the old man showed up with his small, underfed beasts of burden, my enthusiasm waned. After mounting the horses and starting on our way, I was horrified to see a whole entourage of young boys with sticks, viciously whipping the hind legs of the poor horses.

It didn’t take long before I was in tears. The memory of Maya in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, fighting with Don Manuel to stop whipping her horse, came rushing back to me. I’ve been back to rent horses to the waterfall with Don Manuel two times since Maya died, and each time I have to fight with him to stop whipping the horses. But compared to these horses, his seem very strong and fit and willing to run. These poor animals, especially one that was dripping sweat and trailing behind right from the start, looked like they might not survive the ascent.

It took a while to persuade the sadistic old man that we wouldn’t ask for our money back if he took the weakest horse back down and let it rest. I would hope he gave it something to eat and drink as well.

I made it clear to the two boys who kept walking with us that there would be no tips if anyone hit the horses again. We really didn't need them at all, but they seemed poor enough to be willing to walk up and back in hopes of a tip. Andre and I took turns riding the other horse and our guide, Celestine, even got down and walked at one point so we both could ride for a while. We ended up letting the two boys ride the horses back downhill while we walked. It felt good to get some exercise and the joy of horseback riding had long faded.

Fortunately, the thrill of seeing the Sans Souci Palace and the Citadelle fortress were well worth any suffering. By the end, the $50 (plus tips) package deal we negotiated with the entrance office for 3 horses, guide, and entrance tickets seemed like a pittance for the two historic sites. I've experienced the same awesome feeling twice in the past – at Machu Pichu in Peru and the Masada in Israel – standing on a mountaintop, admiring an incredible human-made structure, and overlooking the world below. From La Citadelle, we could make out the city of Cap-Haitien and the Caribbean Sea. I’ve heard that on a clear day you can even see Cuba 90 miles away.

Our guide Celestine spoke to us in English – sort of – but the funny thing was, Andre could understand him and I couldn’t. His strong accent and sketchy vocabulary and grammar were familiar to Andre, but not me. In fact, when I played back the video a few days later, at first I was wondering what language was being spoken. One of the few things I did understand were that “Christophe was died in 1820” and I finally realized that he was talking about a “cistern” not a “system.” Compared to the research I’d done ahead of time, Celestine had his facts all scrambled. But who am I to tell a Haitian their history?

Another bonus of the journey up and down the hill was the chance to say “Bon Swa” to the villagers. Many of them ran up to us to sell handmade crafts. I broke down and bought a bunch of seed necklaces and a bamboo flute. The vendors let me photograph them with their wares. We bought white bread and some fried stuff along the way for Andre and our companions, but I chose to wait for dinner -- which we ate 12 hours after breakfast.

All I kept thinking, the whole day, was how happy I was that we didn’t take Andre’s Aunt Miche with us after all. On the overnight to Kenscoff with us, she packed her iron, five changes of outfits, several pairs of cute little shoes, and an array of hair ornaments, make-up, and toiletries. She never would have survived La Citadelle, as much as she'd wanted to come along.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Cap-Haitien, Haiti: Feb. 9-11, 2008

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1-2. The domed Catholic Church, which we could see from our hotel balcony, 3-5. Street scenes of Cap-Haitien, 6-7. Views from Hotel Mont Jolie, 8. A boy shimmying up a coconut palm, 9. Garbage piles up everywhere, 10. Boy Scouts ask the "blanc" to take their picture, 11-14. The four great religions in Haiti: Catholic, Baptist, Rastafarian and the Cell Phone, 15-16. Me at the Auberge du Picolet and Andre at the Roi Christophe, our two favorite hotel restaurants with free wi-fi.

Every city wants to be the "Paris" of their part of the world. Buenos Aires is called “The Paris of Latin America” and Cap-Haitien was once known as “The Paris of the Antilles.” But to me, it actually resembles New Orleans…after Hurricane Katrina.

The ride from the airport passes right through the slums. I kept expecting it to get better, but even the downtown area where the recommended mid-priced hotels are looked pretty rough. I knew without asking that Andre was concerned about our safety.

Since he’s more particular than I am, I let him check out the first hotel. He reported it to be noisy, dirty, small, and dark – for $60! Our taxi driver suggested the historic Roi Christophe where Napoleon’s sister once lived, complete with swimming pool and casino, which I knew to be over $100 a night. To stay on budget, I requested the Hotel Akennsa instead. This time I checked it out, passing a noisy generator and bar on the way up to the third floor. I was surprised to find the room quiet inside, with an ocean view, and a large lovely balcony right beside it. Andre negotiated 3 nights for $180 and we moved in.

Once we got acquainted, I actually started liking Cap-Haitien. If I squinted just right, I could imagine cobble-stoned streets instead of dirt, and fresh paint instead of crumbling walls. It must have been a beauty in its day. We walked down to the waterfront and once we got past the commercial port and the piles of garbage, there was a nice palm-lined malecón for strolling, with a luscious warm breeze off the ocean.

We found delicious meals and free wi-fi at two fancy hotels – the afore-mentioned Roi Christophe with its lush gardens and Spanish-style courtyards, and the elegant Auberge du Picolet which faces the ocean. The employees in both locations understand the meaning of the word “service,” which isn’t always the case in Haiti. And the food arrives in a timely fashion, rather than an hour-plus later, as in other places. Breakfast for two, consisting of Creole-style omelet, fruit plate, pancakes, fresh juice and coffee was $16, which seemed reasonable.

Cap-Haitien’s main plaza is huge and beautiful. The classic domed cathedral can be seen from our hotel balcony, which reminded me of the film “A Room with a View,” set in Florence, Italy. The population of O’Cap, as the Haitians call it, tops 100,000, making it the country’s second largest city. However, it felt a small town and I was happy to be walking everywhere again, even after dark.

It’s also a lot cleaner than the capitol. People still throw garbage everywhere and trashcans are hard to find. But every morning, the women sweep the streets, collecting the garbage into piles, which will be burnt at night.

The main reason most tourists come to Cap-Haitien is to visit the Citadel, a mountain fortress 20 kilometers to the south, and Sans Souci, its accompanying palace, both constructed for King Christophe in the early 1800s. We waited to go early Monday morning, to avoid the weekend crowd.

Port Salut, Haiti: Feb. 4-5

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Sunset at Hotel du Village beach, 2. Arriving from Les Cayes by moto-taxi, 3. Every day is market day, 4. Digicel ads are everywhere. I wonder if they provide the roofs for huts like this, 5. Port Salut Beach, 6. I spotted this girl preparing eel, 7. After negotiating a price, the frying begins, 8. We also ordered a fish, fried bananas, and salad, 9. Having fun back at the hotel beach, 10-11. Carnival was celebrated during the day and at night, 12. Breakfast at the hotel, 13. Port Salut is still undiscovered by foreign tourists, 14. Outside Les Cayes at the rice fields, 15. A new friend asks to be photographed.

We planned on riding in a tap-tap from Les Cayes to Port Salut. But we got weird vibes from the other male passengers waiting in the back of the truck. When the driver told us he wouldn’t be leaving for another three hours, we took the hint and left. We decided to splurge on two motorcycle taxis for the hour-long ride. As it turns out, the ride was excellent, partly due to the Taiwanese-built road.

The scenery between Les Cayes and Port Salut is stunning. As we climbed the hills, I caught glimpses of the coast. Passing small villages, you see what everyday life in Haiti is like. Sadly, the trees have been cut down in many places, mostly to be made into charcoal for cooking, but it’s still possible to see how beautiful Haiti was and could be again.

Port Salut, population 10,000 has a few hotels. We chose Hotel du Village, which features 9 little cottages right on the beach. The clean, nicely decorated rooms are pretty basic with no hot water, no electricity during the day and no internet. A delightful French woman named Catherine owns the place. I liked how she embraces the Haitian culture and community. We saw her give donations to the Carnival processions, speak respectfully to her employees, and one morning she treated a young man’s wound. Originally, she came to Haiti as a volunteer nurse.

Our beach was right out of the tourist brochures, with white sand, warm sun, clear water, and very little garbage. Most of the time we were the only ones there. When we wanted company, we just walked 5-minutes away to the public beach. School was out for five days for Carnival, so the place was packed. The funny thing about Haitians, is most of them don’t swim and they’re terrified of the ocean. Unlike Americans, who spread out in the water, the Haitians tend to cram into one small area.

Until recently, Andre couldn’t swim and was terrified of sharks. I guess it comes from living in a country so poor that people risk their lives on overcrowded fishing boats, trying to make it to the U.S. Many end up drowning or being eaten by sharks. But since Andre met me, he’s learning how to swim. I predict he’ll actually be a strong swimmer once he gets lessons in Santa Cruz.

Our second day at the public beach, I was surprised to see several carloads of white people show up. They’re Americans from a group called Healing Hands for Haiti who do volunteer medical work, mostly with children. While Andre played soccer with their interpreter and local co-workers, I chatted with a clown named Paul. He entertains the kids with soap bubbles and Chinese juggling sticks, to warm them up for the doctors. Paul claimed that most Haitians are terrified of doctors because they only see them when they’re dying. Sure enough, before long, Paul was entertaining a group of curious kids who gathered to see the “blanc” or whites.

Andre and I could easily have stayed longer in Port Salut, but his cousin back in Les Cayes wanted us to spend her day off with her on Feb. 6th, the day before our flight back to Port-au-Prince. After the beautiful beaches in Port Salut, it was hard to get excited about Plage Jolie, but it was nice to spend more time with Andre’s new relatives. We invited them to fish dinners, which as always, took an hour or more to prepare, but were well worth the wait.