Yes, the skies darkened and then opened, and the rain poured down, making Haiti seem that much more sad. It also got some of that stagnant (dengue infested, I’m sure) water moving through the trash filled gutters and streets. And created lots of mud.
Undeterred, I set out for the small town of Milot to find the Citadel. Actually the Citadelle Laferriere, but who can say that, right? It is one of the largest fortresses in the Americas and was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1982, along with the nearby Sans Souci palace. The Citadel was built by Henri Christophe (well, by 20,000 workers between 1805 and 1820), a key leader during the Haitian slave rebellion, after Haiti gained independence from France at the beginning of the 19th century. For more on the cool story behind the Citadel, (see Note 1)
I arrived at the small ticket booth near the gates of the Sans Souci palace and the ‘road’ leading up to the fortress, and was immediately besieged by “guides” looking for a customer for the day. There must have been 20 of them and they surrounded me offering their services. I ignored the lot and stepped up to the official ticket window. A price list was offered, which was nice, being fully aware of the actual, real price of things is always a plus. It was $5 (yes, prices in dollars) to get in. Plus $25 for the services of a guide. Plus $15 for a horse to take you up, way up, the 7 mile cobble stoned ‘road’ to the main attraction, The Citadel.
I had read somewhere that although the ‘official’ ticket booth offered the option of horseback for $15 (and two and a half hours up, two and a half back), they didn’t offer the option of a motorcycle for $10 (15 minutes up, 10 back). But I figured once I chose a guide, we could find a motorcycle. So, I paid my $5 entrance fee and was asked to sign in on the register book. Me. That’s who was here today to see this iconic fortress that was once the crown jewel of Haiti’s national defense. I was the only tourist signed in today. Maybe it was the rain, or maybe it was that there are very few tourists in Haiti because of…….well, because of many things, but I would have the fort all to myself today.
I signed the book, and spun from the window to be met by 40 eyes all staring expectantly at me. Some became a bit more aggressive, trying to vie for my attention by speaking louder than the others. Some edged closer, and as I already had my back against the ticket booth window, it got a bit, um, uncomfortable. One kid didn’t say a word. He had been hovering very close to my left shoulder the entire time I was at the window and he was, in fact, the first one to say hello when I originally arrived. So, to be fair, he was first, I chose him. His name was Junior.
Two motorcycles appeared out of the mist as if by magic and I was told to pay $30 for the two, one for me, one for Junior. “Nah, me and Junior can both ride on the same motorcycle, thanks”……believe me, I’ve seen FIVE people on one motorcycle, so three (with driver) will be no problem. “And, it’s only $10”. Slow day boys, take what you can get!
All negotiations and transactions complete, we took off for the top of the mountain to see the Citadel!
The cobblestone road only took us so far. At a certain point all vehicular traffic had to stop (horses could keep going) at a parking area closer (about a mile or so) from the fort itself. We walked.
The cobblestone road was built during the Jean Claude Duvalier years (Baby Doc, see Note 2) and was in and of itself a pretty impressive feat of engineering. Loads of people live on the mountain and we passed lots of small, well kept houses. Some wood, some concrete, some simple woven reed. It wasn’t raining much, just misty. Which was kinda nice, not as hot and kinda spooky!
We passed some kids playing primitive bamboo instruments and Junior told me it was their way of welcoming me to their home.
We eventually made it up to the massive fort and it was truly spectacular. On a sunny day, which this most certainly wasn’t, you can see Cap Haitien and the Atlantic Ocean and occasionally even the eastern coast of Cuba, 90 miles (that’s all?!!) to the west
Piles and piles of unused canon balls
Meet Junior, my awesome guide.
One of the original magazine buildings, used for manufacturing gunpowder. At some point there was a gigantic explosion and it ripped the near end of the building off.
Inscription on a cannon
We walked around for a couple of hours while Junior did his best to tell me about the history of the place. He also told me that he has a wife and two young children and he is trying his damnedest to feed them. His life is not easy. He enjoys being a guide and meeting foreigners (not many Haitians come to visit he said) and really enjoys speaking English. He lamented the fact that very few visitors are coming these days, thanks to the government. Junior has put his fate, and that of his family, in the hands of God. He told me over and over and over that he prays each night for God to help him. I hope He does.
We headed back down the hill in the rain and the mist.
Arriving soaking wet to the parking lot near the ticket booth, I bid Junior farewell (see Note 3) and sought shelter from the rain. It let up after awhile and I explored San Souci (see Note 4) on my own.
The church. Closed. Damaged by the earthquake.
With that, I bid you adieu. Man my French is getting good!
See you back in Cap Haitien!
By the way, atlas obscura is one of my all time fav travel sites. Check it out.
2) The Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc (father and son) ruled Haiti from 1957 through 1986. 29 years of oppressive, brutal and bloody dictatorship that just adds to the sadness of the whole Haitian story. Baby Doc had the unmitigated gall to return to Haiti after years of exile in France, check it out here:
I could fill this blog for days on these two bastards and what they did to Haiti.
Especially brutal, and somewhat an obsession of mine, were the TonTon Macoute
The Duvalier’s personal henchman, trained by US Marines. Haitians themselves named this force after the Haitian Creole mythological TonTon Macoute (Uncle Gunnysack) bogeyman, who kidnaps and punishes unruly children by snaring them in a gunny sack (French: Macoute) and carrying them off to be consumed at breakfast. Scary group of fuckers, they. Check this:
If you want, there is an excellent book on the whole matter called Papa Doc and The TonTon Macoute. I read it awhile back and it is available here:
See, told you I was obsessed!
3) Huge tip for Junior, the least, very least, I could do.