In the split second after the gunshot, I wasn’t sure if ducking was a sufficient response.

It seemed to work for the dozens of people around me, though. As the heavily-armed soldiers hustled to the source of the noise and I was deciding whether or not to panic, my eyes settled on the culprit: a wheelbarrow – overloaded with at least five hundred pounds of rice in white sacks – that had hit a stone in the road. The tire, rather than hissing its way flat, had exploded from the pressure. The crowd exhaled simultaneously and went back to its flowing confusion. The wheelbarrow’s owner scratched his head. This all happened in an instant as I stood by a river called Massacre.

It took me two years of living next door in the Dominican Republic to finally buckle down and go to Haiti. All that time I’d been hearing stories filtering across the border and combining them with statistics I’d read: that Haiti is the poorest country in the Hemisphere and has a life expectancy of 49 years; that the DR, not without its own severe poverty, boasts a per-capita income five times higher than that of its neighbor; that Somalia and Haiti are the most commonly-invoked examples of failed states.

2 Map of sites featured in this trip

When a coup ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide last spring, the peace corps pulled the plug on its program in Haiti and since then no volunteers have been permitted to go there, though most of us worked with migrant Haitians on a daily basis in the DR. The state department warning is still dire in its recommendation that no American citizen travel to Haiti for any reason, despite the presence of a seven-thousand strong UN peacekeeping force. I’d never been in a country occupied by the blue helmets - what more temptation did I need?

As it happens, the troops were wearing blue baseball caps instead of helmets.

Reflecting on his travels in Africa, Paul Theroux wrote that the only way to really feel a border is to cross it on foot.

A week ago I was standing on the West bank of the Massacre river, having walked across on a bridge choked with Haitians going to the twice-weekly market in the Dominican border town of Dajabón.

On the DR side was a gigantic gateway and a few Dominican cops. On the bridge a squad of Spanish peacekeepers with automatic rifles nervously scanned the crowds for who-knows-what and occasionally rotated out with other soldiers waiting in the shade of a UN Humvee parked nearby. On the Haitian side was a single policeman, directing the flow of traffic and casting distracted glances at the three grungy Americans standing on the side of the road. I was there waiting for a ride to the interior with Jason and Piper – two fellow Peace Corps volunteers – when the above-mentioned wheelbarrow temporarily raised our pulses.


The author at the border - Ouanaminthe, Haiti (Photo by J. Chancer)

We had crossed without a word from officials on either side, and I guessed that could be attributed to

  1. The important-looking Peace Corps IDs hanging from our necks
  2. The UN blue of my over-bleached Middlebury College baseball cap
  3. The fact that confidence is all you need to avoid undue attention on open-border market days.

Jason and I spoke very little Haitian Creole (our collective vocabulary amounting to “Good afternoon,” “Thank you,” “Beyond mountains are more mountains” and “Short pants, please”), but Piper had spent a year as a volunteer in Haiti before the evacuation sent her to a new assignment in the DR, and she spoke like a native. She was also running a solar electrification project in her old host village at Trou du Nord and we were helping her carry a load of battery cells there. Our ultimate destination was Cap Haitian, the largest city in the North of Haiti.

By minor miracle, we managed to hitch the forty miles to the city in a jeep with three UN policemen from Québec. It speaks to the quality of the road that the trip – in a rain squall but with four wheel drive – took three hours. Along the way we passed queues of rust-eviscerated trucks and converted rattletrap buses (known in Haiti as Tap-Taps) unable to clear the mud pits. We plowed through runoff pools barring the way to all but the steady procession of mostly-gleaming UN vehicles going to and from the border.

Passing a Tap-Tap packed full with Haitians – another dozen of them riding on the roof, looking wet and miserable – Jason remarked how much harder life seemed in comparison to the DR. The Canadian in the driver’s seat responded “Yeah, but somehow they always keep smiling.” As he spoke we passed by a man standing beside a flooded house, his arms raised in anger and yelling furiously at us. Ten minutes later we flew by another laden Tap-Tap and plastered the occupants with mud from our tires. I sensed the potential for karmic payback in the future.

We traveled Haiti like vacationers, not aid workers, but we had our eyes as wide open as possible. In Cap Haitian we met up with Becky, Byron and Katherine – three Peace Corps colleagues who had flown in via Port-Au-Prince that day – and we stayed at a hotel filled with Red Cross employees. We ate steak for dinner and fell asleep on turned-down sheets. Outside, the peacekeepers knocked off work at six and caravanned back to their fortified compounds, leaving the street corners to their night residents, whether armed gangs known as Chimeres, or working Haitians looking for the least dangerous route home.

3 Peacekeepers on duty in Cap Haitien (Photo by B. Holcomb)

We spent the next day at a beach northwest of the city at a site used as a day resort by Royal Caribbean cruise lines. The Atlantic was transparent blue and Guinness was available for a dollar a bottle. A dozen Chilean soldiers on their day off snorkeled around and generally avoided the few rich Haitians who could afford the three-dollar beach entry fee. One soldier we talked to – as he sat on the dock collecting a sunburn – told us he was looking forward to the end of his deployment in another month; R&R notwithstanding, it was evident that he would rather be in Chile. We wished him luck and swam off to look for conch shells.

That night we stayed at the nearby village of Labadie - accessible only by boat but accustomed to tourists - where we ate fried plantains to the blast of Guns N’ Roses from a generator-powered stereo. When Byron and I set up a slackline (a tightrope-style activity employed mostly by bored rock climbers), we attracted every kid in town to view the spectacle. One of the older onlookers decided that Byron was employing some sort of magic to walk the ten-yard length of webbing with such balance, and asked him to do it again without his hat on, just to be sure.

4 Fishing off the North coast near Labadie (Photo by B. Holcomb)

The moon rose full and yellow as we fell asleep to the drone of mosquitoes. Cap Haitian – a city of half a million people just over the ridge behind our hotel – cast no glow on the night sky.

The next day, the girls opted to stay at the beach while Byron, Jason and I headed for the primary (first on a very short list) tourist attraction of Northern Haiti: Citadel Laferrière.

While technically a republic, Haiti has a long history of dictators, beginning with Henri Christophe, self-proclaimed emperor of the island following the revolution of 1804. When he heard news that Napoleon himself was planning to re-take the former French colony, Christophe set his nation of ex-slaves to work building a fortress on top of a three-thousand foot karst pinnacle in the mountains south of Cap Haitian. The construction began in 1811 and was still incomplete when Cristophe committed suicide in 1820, though by then 365 cannons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition had been installed there, the labor costing the lives of as many as 2,000 workers.

The fort – still the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere – never came under attack; the French had lost interest.

It is with no small amount of irony that the Citadele was finally completed in the time of Haiti’s last full-time dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who built a beautiful cobblestone pathway to the top of the peak in anticipation of hordes of tourists who never materialized. Duvalier fled to France in 1986 and the military ruled in Haiti until the first free elections in the country’s history elevated Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency in 1990. The Citadele is something of a mix of symbols: a bastion of determined resistance to colonialism; a monument to what Haitians can create when they work together; or perhaps an ironic testimony to the only power that ever seems to accomplish anything – totalitarianism.

The three of us were the only tourists on the summit that afternoon. We took in the view and dutifully snapped some photos before descending quickly to catch the last truck back to Cap Haitian.

5 The ruins of Henri Christophe’s Palais Sans Souci, at the base of the Citadele Laferrière (Photo by B. Morris)

With our assignments in the DR beckoning, we headed back to the border the next day. In the confusion of mud and crowds at the Tap-Tap depot in Cap Haitian we made the decision to jump in the bed of the first truck leaving for Ouanaminthe on the frontier, and promptly found ourselves in karmic backlash for the ideal ride we’d had in the other direction. The rain clouds had long since parted, and a full sun beat down on us in the packed, uncovered truck. As we left the city, the pitted asphalt gave way to a one-lane dirt road reminiscent of a newly-exploded minefield. Past the point of no return, the driver let us in on the fact that the back left wheel was missing all but two lug nuts, so he would be proceeding at less than ten mph for the duration of the trip in an effort to avoid losing the wheel in any of the thousands of potholes.


Traffic on the way out of Cap Haitien (Photo by B. Holcomb)

There were conflicting explanations for the condition of the road – the primary commercial artery for northern Haiti. The Canadian cops said that it had been contracted for paving, but when Aristide went into exile he took the public works cash with him. Piper said it was in the best condition she’d ever seen. A man sitting on top of the truck’s cab wondered why the UN wasn’t doing something about it. Of course there was ample time for such pondering: the trip took five hours at a crawl.

Despite Byron’s warnings about talking politics in a volatile location, I couldn’t help asking some fellow passengers – most of them fluent in Spanish – their opinions on the things we’d seen. Mention of the name Aristide brought an immediate clamor of argument in Creole from several people, in which I could discern the words “Americans,” “dollars,” “justice” and “magic.” I caught Byron glaring at me as if to say, “I told you so; now they’ll never find our bodies.” When things settled a bit and switched back to Spanish, I discovered that the former president had few friends in the north of the country – not surprising, considering the fact that last year’s uprising had originated in Cap Haitian. One man told me pro-Aristide gangs were running the lucrative cocaine trade in Haiti. Another related a tale of how Aristide had escaped an assassination attempt by turning into a large bird and flying away.

A businessman sitting next to me had holdings in both Haiti and the DR; he was initially reluctant to offer any opinions, but he needed no prodding to tell some stories about colleagues losing everything to the chimeres, who would ransack shops with impunity. I asked him if the blue helmets could do anything to help, but he shook his head and said, “They only confiscate the weapons they see.” Nervously looking at his watch three hours into the ride, he jumped off the bed and flagged down a passing motorcycle, then shelled out the money required to arrive at the border long before the rest of us. No one else seemed to have the cash to do the same, so we continued chugging toward our destination, breathing the dust kicked up by occasional convoys of SUVs bearing the markings of UNICEF or Plan International.

Arriving in Ouanaminthe with the tension of the long ride on our shoulders, we blitzed back across the border with tunnel vision. I didn’t notice the crowds, the peacekeepers, the vendors or the motorcycle taxi driver I shortchanged. I almost didn’t notice the little girl trying to pick my pocket until she discovered I had nothing there and moved in front of me to try her luck with Byron. When we were on the Dominican side and five blocks from the gate, I started seeing things again. Byron had to remind me to breathe.

7 In the streets of Cap Haitien (Photo by B. Morris)

Haiti doesn’t show up on the radar much these days. Not long ago, Haitian police forces in Port-Au-Prince killed five demonstrators at a pro-Aristide rally, and it was mentioned in three sentences among the back pages of the New York Times. Elections are slated for this autumn, but the UN peacekeeping force admits it will not be able to maintain the necessary country-wide security. No one outside of Washington – and least of all in Haiti – seems to support the interim government of Gerard LaTortue. The country is losing its grip on even a provisional stability, and just across the border in the DR I heard no news. It took me two years to see the other half of the island for myself, and it was with morbid fascination that I observed the contrasts.

A world that can hide a broken circumstance like Haiti within its folds and margins is larger than any one person can imagine. I have been privileged to get a small glimpse of the size of this world, but I don’t have the slightest idea of what to do with the knowledge. Those in charge of Haiti’s future seem vexed with the same helpless perspective.

Cover photo of Cap Haitien market by B. Holcomb