| Outside magazine, November 1996|
I knew this road, Route Nationale Onethis beautiful, perilous road, my nightmare road, a dark journey toward the light threading humanity's most fundamental aspirations, the road the American soldiers had nicknamed Highway to Hell; I knew it better than I knew the streets of my hometown. It originated in the fetid harborside slums of Port-au-Prince, where the poorest of the hemisphere's poor bathed in sewers and homeless children fought one another for the feral right to lick the residue out of the brown plastic pouches of MREsspaghetti and meatballs, chicken à la kingthey'd scavenged from the military's garbage. Here the road boasted the world's biggest pothole, dredged out by runoff from the eroding mountainsides and a death trap during storms. Hours-long traffic jams billowed diesel soot, and along the quayside it was not unusual to see, throughout the infinite years of the tyrants, bodies bobbing in the otherwise tranquil harbor. Yet everywhere here the roadside was thick with human vitality, thousands of marchands, energetic with desperation and gifted with tenacious, earthy humor, hawking what a world they had never seen had thrown awaya national yard sale of grease-caked junk and hand-me-downs.
From city center the road headed north, past the walls of Fort Dimanche, where for 29 years the Duvaliers in their madness had murdered friend and foe alike; past the sugar refinery and warehouses and foreign-owned assembly plants; past the airport with its fleet of derelict planes; past the newly paved October the 15th Boulevard, commemorating the date of President Aristide's return from exile; past the Barbancourt rum factory and the once stately neo-colonial Ministry of Agriculture, big as a football field, half of it roofless and charred from a fire, the other half still occupied by bureaucratic zombies. Finally, through the crazy dodge of traffic, the road arrived at the leafy outskirts of town, a small village called Titanyen, which is also the name of the vast coastal plain nearby, mostly methane-whiffy mangrove swamp, where the Haitian military would dump its flood of victims, the corpses eventually shrouded by land crabs and consumed by free-ranging pigs.
The capital and its singular urban miseries left behind, Route Nationale One arrowed ahead, squeezed between a barren ridge of mountains and the coast until, an hour north, it passed the Côte des Arcadins, site of Haiti's all-but-abandoned beach resorts. The road skirted crystal-blue shallows, reefs you could swim to from shore; occasionally you glimpsed high walls that enclosed ti paradislittle paradises, the seaside hideaways of Port-au-Prince's oligarchy, its shoulder-board putschists, its drug kingpins. Farther along was the once lovely port of St. Marc, where you began to notice the frequency of hounfours, voodoo temples, identified by their gay flags and symbolic wall paintings. From there the road curled inland and then flattened out through the malarial Artibonite Valley, Haiti's breadbasket, so overtly primitive that the Special Forces who patrolled the valley called it, unsympathetically, Dinosaurland; its industrious inhabitants, toiling in rice paddies from dawn to dusk, were "mud people."
Beyond the Artibonite was the Savane Désolée, its rainless, infertile soil clumped with cactus and thorn acacia. From there began the radical ascent into the mountains of the north, the road a continuous challenge of switchbacks and plunges, blind curves and breathtaking views of the impossibly rugged interior. Travelers invariably battled both nausea and fascination as, for the next two hours, the road slalomed past packs of uniformed schoolchildren on their daily vertical treks to and from literacy, the pavement diving toward transparent rivers and rising up again to a bowled horizon of overcultivated slopes and lush, shadowy ravines. A few miles past the town of Limbé, Route Nationale One crested a final ridge and foreshadowed its terminus on the shores of the Windward Passage: to the northwest, the pendant-shaped bay where Columbus dropped anchor to praise this once most Rousseauean of isles; straight below, the idyllic vista of the coastal savannah, the fertile Plaine du Nord that once made HaitiAyitiimperial France's most lucrative colony. Finally, the road quit at Cap-Haïtien, touted in centuries past as the Pearl of the Antilles, the Paris of the New World, but now certainly the most exhausted, depleted city in the Americas.
My first trip on Route Nationale One, in the spring of 1986, was not uneventful. I had come with Yves Colon, a Haitian-American friend and fellow journalist, to report on the people's revolution, the dechoukaj, the "uprooting," of Baskethead, aka Baby Doc: Jean-Claude Duvalier. Leaving the wreckage of Port-au-Prince, we stopped for lunch in the town of Gonaïves, where a Duvalierist death squad threatened us for giving food to a hungry child who came crying to our table. Farther on in the mountains, we were confronted by several roadblocks manned by machete-waving peasants. No, we were not the hated bourgeoisie, Yves would respectfully explain; we'd then make a small "donation" to the local youth committee and drive on, passing truckloads of Haitian soldiers, temporarily at peace with their countrymen. At last we entered Cap-Haïtien, intent on climbing to the Citadelle, the largest mountaintop fortress in the New World, built by Henri Christophe, the first elected president of the world's first free black republic.
I would not travel Route Nationale One again until September 1994, the first week of the American intervention. This time it would be the most unforgettable ride of my life: running police roadblocks with the correspondents from Time and the Miami Herald, inching our way through villages where thousands of euphoric people jammed the road to cheer us. After so many years of neglect, the road between St. Marc and Gonaïves had become impassable without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. A CBS film crew had rolled its Land Cruiser a few hours earlier, trying to navigate the archipelago of holes and trenches, yet we raced ahead recklessly, bruised and jolted, trying to reach Cap-Haïtien before the pitch-black wildness of nightfall.
During the 16 months of the American occupation, I traveled Route Nationale One dozens of times, sometimes in the back of Humvees, sometimes in a Pathfinder with Gary, my interpreter. By the time the troops pulled out last January, I had internalized this road; it had become a path through my own moral and physical frontiers. I knew its flashpoints, its zenglendoes (bandits), its heroes and its martyrs. I knew where it measured my courage and where it mocked my wavering fortitude. I knew its hostility as well as its hospitality, its bloodstains and its celebrations. I had so accepted this road that I would find myself driving through the countryside after dark, not recommended, alone and mindless, knowing only not to stop, for any reason, no matter whatyou could kill but not save, you could pity but not help. I realized then that I had succumbed to the fatalism that was Haiti, which was not necessarily a mistake. The mistake was, I had begun to believe I could finesse it.
Which is perhaps why my last trip on Route Nationale One, this past spring, felt like a small redemption. The country was mango-ripe with small but ephemeral redemptions, recuperating from the three years it had been buried alive under the de factos, trying hard to believe it had been reborn into grace. This time I was taking my wife along. She had flown down from Florida for a long weekend, an anniversary present of sorts, her first trip to the island. It was a place she'd always dreamed of visiting and somehow expected to love. And despite my misgivings, I was determined that she be given that chance: to embrace the Haiti that might have existed in a tourist brochure, had the centuries not left it so cursed. "There are no people in the world who are as nonviolent as these people," I remember Bernie Diederich, the godfather of all foreign correspondents in Haiti and one of Graham Greene's drinking buddies, telling me during the first days of the invasion. "They've never been able to get rid of the stigma of 1791." The year of paybackslave uprising, the massacre of whites.
When I thought of the many thousands slaughtered in Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistanso much of the worldI knew Bernie had a point, but it didn't change the fact that on too many of my trips to Haiti I had seen someone violently killed before my eyes. Now the troops had gone home, and the newly formed Haitian National Policerookies with handgunshad assumed tenuous control. Was the road safe? I wondered as we packed the car that Saturday for the trip north. No one could say, and normally I wouldn't care. My wife was game but made me promise to play the adventure straight down the middle, no steering toward the edges, no looking for trouble in a country where trouble customarily looked for you. I agreed without a hint of protest because, if only for a weekend, I needed a Haiti that needed my wife, someone seeing the island with fresh eyes, someone whose experience might counteract the myths, connect with Haiti's magical brilliance, and leave behind a blessing.
I was sitting on the veranda of the Oloffson, our first night there, comforting my wife as we waited to be served rum sours. Incredibly, while walking across the hotel grounds to our room, she had been bopped on the head by a brace of coconuts dislodged from a tree by gusty winds. Fortunately, they were coco yayhollow husksand had struck a glancing blow, more alarming than anything else. Yet still I had to wonder, what sort of welcome was this from the loas, the Haitian spirits: roughhouse flirtation or warning? A woman approached, exuding camaraderie, certain we were of her tribe, and I invited her to sit down.
"Coco yay," she said, making the anecdote of my wife's small misfortune self-referential, "that's what people have been calling me all day long!" Her droopy eyes and flat mouth became animated, made happy with unlikely pride. Dry coconutCreole slang for a tightwad, someone stingy, juiceless. Apparently it was in her nature to nickel and dime the dispossessed. She was an editor on the foreign desk of one of the globe's most influential newspapers, in Haiti for the first time, "on vacation" and why not, clearly pleased to have escaped her office for the field, the front lines, here at the Caribbean's most famous hotel.
The very design of colonialismthe gingerish Victorian charm, the gabled Edwardian panacheachieved its ultimate seduction in those venues once renowned, with brazen overconfidence, as oases of civilization. The Kiplingesque Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling. Somerset Maugham's steamy haunt, the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Outposts of faded authority and funky grandness banding the girth of the planet, their architecture and ceiling-fan ambience created an indelible vision of exotic intrigue.
The Hotel Oloffsona whitewashed, three-tiered tropo-Gothic fantasy nestled in its own jungle in a high-walled enclave in downtown Port-au-Princewas just such a place, or rather the illusory variation of just such a place, since it was built atop a history that didn't quite fit the groove of what was once called the white man's burden. The hotel was a native hybrid, an imitation that became authentic through the grind and twist of desperate events, "a folly," as a travel writer once observed, "of spires, crotchets, finials, and conical towers."
This folly was the extravagant vision of the Sam family, which constructed the mansion at the turn of the century and subsequently abandoned it in 1915, when the family's dubious contribution to the nation, President Guillaume Sam, was dragged into the street, his body rent to pieces by a mob, and then paraded around on sharpened poles. The U.S. Marines seized the occasion as an excuse to invade, and into the capital they marched, leasing the future hotel as a hospital. The rear wing became a maternity ward; Room 20, now the Graham Greene room, was an operating theater. In his novel The Comedians, Greene described the Oloffson, alias the Hotel Trianon: "You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him."
Personally, I had never thought of the Oloffson as spooky, but surely it must have been in the summer of 1994, when the attachésthe Cédras regime's paramilitary assassinswould come by to dance to the house band and get liquored up before hitting the streets to do the death-squad thing. The band canceled its regular Thursday-night performances when Uzi-toting Macoutes began turning over tables and abducting guests.
The Oloffson was where I preferred to stay in town; the other predictable choice was the Oloffson's antithesis, the Hotel Montana, up the mountainside in Pétionville, the provenance of the ruling class, otherwise known as MREsMorally Repugnant Elites, so named by State Department wags over at the embassy. The atmosphere at the Montana was triumphantly corporate. Television networks rented entire floors; phone service was fairly reliable; security was tight.
Besides serving as a sort of crash house for the shaggier species of reporter and foreign-aid entrepreneur, the Oloffson doubled as an art gallery and celebrity watering hole. Fetishes, artifacts, and relics abounded, perhaps none more curious or enduring than the highly literate chameleon Aubelin Jolicouer, aging spy, former Duvalierist apparatchik, and gossip columnist for one of Haiti's two daily newspapers, transformed only slightly by Greene into the fictional Petit Pierre. Any day you could sit on the airy veranda and observe Jolicouer mounting the Oloffson's steps, bald head and gold-knobbed cane gleaming, his spidery body impeccably suited, to hold soirees in the hotel's wicker-and-rattan drawing room or play backgammon with cronies from the CIA. Quite the cocksman, in years past Jolicouer would gravitate toward the femmes blancs flitting through the hotel, though now he shunned white babesa form of protest against American intervention, his patriotic, private sacrifice for Haitian sovereignty.
Jolicouer had been a fixture at the Oloffson for decades, just as the foreign correspondents had returned year after year, dining on the veranda at twilight, their conversations interrupted by sudden bursts of automatic-weapons fire from the National Palace, where still another coup was unfolding, each journalist pausing with fork in midair, wondering, "Didn't I order a double?"
The Oloffson liked to boast of its glamorous guests: Malcolm Lowry, Mick Jagger, Irving Howe, Noel Coward, Ali MacGraw, John Gielgud, the list goes on. Back in the early seventies, when Baskethead first came to power, Haiti enjoyed a relatively brief but successful tenure as a jet-set destination. The casinos, the privacy, the security, the servile population, the hypnotic appeal of the culture all proved irresistible to the rich and famous. In the mideighties, at a New Year's Eve dinner in the Turks and Caicos, the former manager of one of Haiti's most exclusive resorts proclaimed to me that he loved Port-au-Prince because it was the only city in the world beside Geneva where he felt safe enough to walk around after dark with $10,000 in cash in his pocket.
But the blancs, the foreigners, didn't come to Haiti anymore, not as tourists anyway, except a handful of hard-wired voyeurslike myself, perhapswho seemed to thrive on cruising the world's most fucked-up places. For a generation, for many generations, there had been the killings, the state-sponsored violence, the crushing poverty, the inaccessibility of the Creole language. In the mideighties the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta made matters worse with an AIDS scare. Hollywood and the missionaries bogeyfied voodoo, Haiti's syncretic and wildly creative version of animism, an ancient view of the universe that Western societies seem compelled to shit upon. "Haiti," a Baptist mission's stationary warned, "6.5 million souls in Catholicism and witchcraft." And of course there's the racial dynamicsan insurmountable barrier to many whitesand now the military occupation of the island, its political instability, and once again its uncertain future.
Haiti was different, way different, but it wasn't the last refuge of barbarism, as so many otherwise decent folks seemed to think. The Haitian people led recognizable lives, although in stratified, polarized worlds. Still, tourism was a questionable commodity, if not an altogether frivolous pursuit. The country was by no means a bargain, and it's doubtful you'd have what is commonly regarded as "a good time." Like a disturbing dream, Haiti brimmed with contradictions. It was archaic, alarming, fabulous, and strange, home to a state of permanent upheaval and permanent transcendence, a nation with an accomplished artist and incipient dictator in every family. From the veranda of the Oloffson, it was inevitable that you would entertain the self-congratulatory thought that you'd landed at Hip Central, come to feel the jungle beat, hear the bullets sing, party with saints and vampires, good and evil, either one, here at the Edge-Dancers' Ball, Neo-Bohemian Pavilion Number One, Hemisphere Number One, Zone Das in Democracy, as in Delusion.
If you wrote about Haiti as a "writer"that is, not as a journalist, a reporterit seemed impossible you could convince a reader that such a place truly existed.
My wife, however, was enchanted, eating griot, glancing down at the tiny swimming pool which glowed serenely in the darkness like a lozenge of blue mountain sky, the same pool, once drained, where the protagonist of Greene's The Comedians discovers the corpse of a government minister who fell out of favor with Papa Doc. Through the Port-au-Prince grapevine, I had asked my sidekick Gary to join us and he finally came, big-hearted and soft-spoken, sweeping food into his mouth, making my wife laugh by telling stories on me. At some point, after we had stopped counting rum sours, we fell silent as Manno Charlemagne, Haiti's Bob Marley, waltzed across the veranda with his Uzi-slung entourage and disappeared into the hotel. Ever since Manno had been elected mayor of Port-au-Prince, he had confronted the remnants of the old regime head-on, bulldozing a strip of Macoute-owned honky-tonks in Champ Mars, whipping the whores and pharisees off the streets, trying to turn the vast plaza in front of the National Palace into a Haitian Central Park. His enemies had quadrupled, and now he lived at the Oloffson, suddenly fond of its high walls.
"Gary," I asked, as I asked each time I returned to Haiti, "how is it out there?"
"You know. You know how it is," he said as I watched his face harden for the first time since he sat down. "Bob, the people are suffering with hope."
There were no reports of trouble in the north, so off we went early Saturday morning, myself at the wheel, Gary riding shotgun, my wife and the editor in the backseat, clucking their tongues at my one caveat: "It's a long, hot, arduous trip, and anything could happen. Please, no whining," I said, though I needn't have bothered. Gary laughed knowingly. The two of us had endured plenty of hours on Route Nationale One, shrugging off the complaints of various passengers, always worldly macho males, while the women we occasionally traveled with seemed far more adaptable, rising stoically or even playfully to Haiti's challenge.
I hated going anywhere in Haiti without Gary, not because I was dependent on his trilingual skills, but because I craved his companionship, his abiding decency, his gentle humor and unwillingness to despair, even though, like most Haitians, he had nothing, and no visible prospects for the future. The first thing I always did in Haiti was to go find Gary, asking around for him on the streets of the slums behind the National Palace, where he lived with his senile grandmother. In 1963, when Gary was three years old, his father was murdered at Fort Dimanche by François Duvalier; his mother abandoned him and fled to Miami. His hapless grandmother sent him to an orphanage run by Pentecostal missionaries when he was eight, an experience so traumatic it was the only subject he refused to talk about. One day last summer, I unthinkingly took Gary with me to Fort Dimanche, where a team of forensic anthropologists was preparing to exhume one of Papa Doc's mass graves. As we stood on the edge of the site, watching the laborers scrape the muck with their hoes, Gary, always stalwart in the face of Haiti's cruelties, seemed to stiffen with pain. "Oh shit, shit!" I said, realizing what I had done, tugging Gary back toward the car, away from the marshy, putrescent ditch where his father had likely been buried.
In some all-important ways, Gary and I knew one another better than anyone else on earth. Together we had been stoned and shot at. Together we had stumbled through riots and scenes of devastation. We had shared the same bed when lodgings were scarce, got silly drunk and talked about love, music, politics, white men and black men, about the distances that separated us. And I had wondered, time and again, How the hell do we spring you out of here, my friend? because Gary longed to travel, to touch and taste the planet like any intelligent, curiosity-driven human being. But no country in the world granted visas to rank-and-file Haitians. Which is to say, finally, that for Gary and me, any trip on Route Nationale One was a trip down memory lane.
But today we were hauling newborns. As the Haitian countryside unscrolled itself so clemently before my wife's absorbing eyes, she murmured her appraisals. The landscape so much more clean and tended than she had expected; such spectacular beauty, dramatic panoramas; such handsome people who carried themselves with vibrant dignity; such a sense of communityeverybody pulling together in the fields. When I heard her say, "I don't think I've ever been in a place where I've felt such a strong creative spirit," I was reminded of a trip Gary and I had taken with Macduff Everton, a photographer I had worked with in South America and the Himalayas. Back in the States, people would look at Macduff's slides and ask themselves with incredulity, This is Haiti? because the pictures were unequivocally sublime.
Yes, this too was Haiti, the one that existed behind the stereotypes, behind the bloody ethos of hate and avarice and race. Macduff's images served to humanize a nation that since its inception had been treated by the Western world, with calculation, like a nigger. Excuse me, but like a savage, filthy nigger. Haiti: the nigger of nations, or so the white man's regard for the world's first free black republic would lead you to conclude. "Imagine," said William Jennings Bryan in 1920, "niggers speaking French." "I don't care if you dress them up and put them in the palace," opined the commander of the 1915 Marine occupation, "they're still nigs."
Against this odious background, Macduff's images were more than mere counterpoint. They were, I think, therapeutic, restorative, perhaps even a shade triumphant, penetrating the layers of white mythology. The irony was, Macduff couldn't get off the island fast enough. "I don't think I've ever been to a place where I felt such evil," he told me afterward. "Do you know what I mean?" I couldn't really answer yes, any more than I could tell him no. Certainly his photographs, their aesthetic radiance, told a different story. Since what he saw through his lens seemed in opposition to his feelings, I had to conclude that for whatever reason, the interior process by which Macduff experienced things was somehow reversed in me and that Haiti was in fact a construction of whatever eye took it in. Which doesn't explain why Haiti had trudged through history draped in bloodstained rags; no confluence of words or images could transform the country or undo the moral default it represented. "If democracy comes," a pretty young mulatto woman told me last year, "the blacks will kill us all." The oppressed become the oppressors, et cetera. This was a nation that once ass-whipped Napoleon, a nation whose revolution caused the Americans and the French to stumble on their pretty words: Of, by, and for the people. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Slaves had made themselves free, and their freedom was unforgivable. Thus a 200-year-long impasse, a land defined by collective maroonage, shipwrecked in the exclusive harbor of Western civilization.
My wife's glance out the window was guileless and embracing and gay, even when, stopping atop the pass into the northern mountains to buy oranges, we were swarmed by market ladies, pleading and persistent. "Mwen pa vle, cherie," I was forced to say as they thrust half the produce of Haiti into the car. "I don't want." Gary knew what was going on, but still he sighed with embarrassment. The marchands couldn't hear me through my whiteness; I stopped seeing them through the blurring bottomlessness of their need.
Throughout the ride north, the editor had taken pleasure in recognizing what she knew, or thought she knew, in the passing landscape, and as we entered Cap-Haïtien she became excited. For her this was a type of homecoming, because she had visited the city many times, vicariously, in the course of her work. As we fell in with the traffic weaving through the battered streets, she told an anecdote that left me deep in cynicism. Her paper's Pentagon correspondent, a seasoned journalist whose reportage I knew well and admired, had come ashore with the Marines at the start of the intervention and filed a story stating in its lead that the city had descended into chaos. The editor had considered this a dubious assertion and, despite the reporter's objections, had rewritten the lead.
"Wait a minute," I bristled. "I was here then. Gary was here. It was chaos. Gary, what did you see?"
"I saw chaos, man."
"Chaos," said the editor, "has a specific meaning, and the reporter couldn't provide enough evidence to justify its use." Sitting in her office, she had refused to accept her own correspondent's eyewitness account, had thought nothing of reshaping the on-the-ground reality. How many times in Haiti had I overheard reporters arguing on the phone with their foreign desks, trying to contain the spin?
OK, so forget it. With Haiti and the foreign press, power flowed unmeasured and unchecked through many hands. Besides, we had come to Cap-Haïtien as tourists, to enjoy ourselves, if such a thing could be done in so broken a place. The city was a mini Port-au-Prince: garbage-piled streets, boarded storefronts, crowds of unemployed. It was now midafternoon, too late for an assault on the Citadelle but early enough, after we secured rooms at the Hôtellerie du Roi Christophe, for a jaunt to the beach. Cormier Plage, a small resort owned by an old associate of Jacques Cousteau, was a half-hour west on a rocky, unpaved road that snaked along the sheer mountainous headlands of the coast. During the heyday of the intervention, Cormier was packed with UN observers, international police monitors, NGOs, PVOs, pick a group; now we found it returned to its customary idleness, deserted but for three American soldiers who had been scuba diving and a minibus of German tourists on a side trip from the Dominican Republic. At twilight, as we headed back toward Cap-Haïtien, we saw the Germans at a nearby fishing village, being treated to a "voodoo ceremony," drums and dancing on demand, and we would see them the next day at the Citadelle, mounted on paso fino horses. A few days later, back in Port-au-Prince, we would awake to news of their charter jet taking off from Puerto Plata and crashing into the sea.
Early the next morning we set out for the Citadelle, certainly one of the wonders of the world, a monument to the genius of paranoia. You could see it from the plains below, a man-made nipple atop the cone of Pic Laferrière. The road brought us first to the village of Milot, at the base of the peak, where the imposing excess of the fortress in the sky is prefaced by an onion-domed chapel and the ruins of Sans-SouciChristophe's palace, built when the former president declared himself king of northern Haiti in 1811. From Milot, a steep serpentine track had been cobbled into the slope, ending four-fifths the way up the mountain at a dusty parking lot. From here you advanced on foot along a trail worn marble-smooth, like cathedral steps, by the legions of barefoot men who hauled the fortress piece by piece up the crag. Or, if you had no shame or were otherwise feeble, you rented a short, scabby horse to haul you upward, your feet scraping the ground. Before I even turned off the ignition, our car was engulfed by a ragtag entourage of chatty kids and "helpers," several of whom attached themselves to the unathletic editor. They were as yet unaware that she was coco yay and had no intention of rewarding them for their good-natured but superfluous attentions.
We'd been given a peaceful and fragrant morning, sunny but not too hot, and up we marched as if we were on a school field trip, only the chaperones were feisty, sharp-witted children. As the path steepened, Haiti unfolded below us like an emperor's map in relief, mesmerizing, growing more beautiful with the perspective of elevation.
What does Haiti mean to you? I'm often quizzed by friends back in the States, puzzled by my attraction to the island. If I knew what Haiti meant to me, I'd probably stop going. Or maybe not. Haiti, much like the Balkans, is a place where history has a parasitic lock on the present, where everyday life crashes back and forth across slippery moral thresholds, shattering and reshaping values, identities, hearts. One moment, children were sheltering you from gunmen; the next moment, those children were dead. One week, you were cheered by elated crowds manning the roadblocks on Route Nationale One; the next week, the same people were angrily pounding your car, screaming unintelligible grievances into your face. "Haiti," wrote the novelist Herbert Gold, "is the best nightmare on earth." Rather, it was an honorable dream, cruelly deferred, populated for the most part by honorable people, cruelly denied.
As I labored toward the Citadelle, I asked myself the same question: What does Haiti mean to me? Nothing. Everything. I imagined, when I came back home after the first month of the invasion, having witnessed so many horrific acts and so many heroic efforts, that I'd find a difference in myself, I'd be a better person somehow. But this metamorphosis never happened. I remembered reading one of Annie Dillard's "found" poems, extracted from the letters of Vincent Van Gogh: "It may be true that there is no God here, but there must be one not far off." And, farther on: "This is not a thing I have sought, but it has come across my path and I have seized it." Dillard's title was, "I Am Trying To Get At Something Utterly Heart-Broken." For me, the poem was a convergence, a moment when I thought, Haiti. The associations were infinite; hope and heartbreak have always been part of every story, whatever the story was when God and man colluded in negligence.
Sweaty and light-headed, we finally stood beneath the magnificent shiplike prow and towering bastions of the Citadelle. Naturally, my wife and the editor wanted a room-by-room tour, but lacking such patience, I left them with Gary and slipped off through the vaulted passageways. I climbed up to the roof and, overcoming vertigo, crept out to the edge of the highest battlement.
From my position atop the fortress, the view had a deceptive magnitude. The surrounding mountains stacked one on top of the other, higher and higher until they disappeared, like runaway slaves, into the scouring clouds. The flanks of the hillsides were mosaics of failed agriculture: red scabs of depleted land, fields of bedrock where the soil had washed away. Muddy rivers twisted across the plains on their way to the Atlantic.
So much of the country looked ruinedblowtorched, gouged, raked, and blasted. But there was another Haiti, a lost Haiti, in those dense, misty mountains on the horizon. Gary and I had gone there, to the proverbial end of the road and beyond, in search of the infamous Marc Lamour, alleged to be Haiti's one and only guerrilla fighter. During the Cédras regime, the Haitian army had launched a massive assault on Lamour and his small band of followers, marching up roadless valleys into his mountain sanctuary, burning entire villages to the ground in a futile attempt to hunt him down.
Gary and I had made our way to Lamour's hideout shortly after the American intervention. These were maximum hinterlands, haven for the maroons, the escaped slaves whose furious lust for freedom evolved into mass insurrection against the French. To get to Lamour we had to make a four-hour drive from Limbé to the world-forsaken town of Bois de Caïman, where we started walking. We quickly attracted the inevitable entouragea pack of young boys, a man herding a pig, a man carrying a stool on his head, a little girl in a powder-blue dress and black baseball cap who held my hand firmly the entire way. Within minutes we had passed through the envelope, out of the commonplace Haiti, and entered the most paradisiacal valley I'd seen anywhere in the tropics. For an hour and a half we hiked among the round, skull-white stones of the river's alluvial plain and splashed thigh-deep into its refreshing blue pools. Here was the virgin splendor of pre-Columbian Ayiti, a vestigial Eden tucked away and shielded from the devastation of 500 years of genocide and greed.
Slowly we ascended the densely timbered slopes and finally came to a burned-out clearing in the jungle. One by one, peasants in tattered clothes, internal exiles, began to emerge from behind the curtain of flora, marveling at our otherness. Lamour, secure in his court, eventually appeared to grant us an audience, and it really doesn't matter what he said, because in the end the journey to find him would always mean as much if not more to me than the words that he spoke. The man and the land shared an identical point of view.
Survival. Maroonage. The lost memory of Haiti's soul.
Atop the Citadelle, my reverie was a sentimental indulgence, I know, but one that seemed to offer at least the illusion of healing.
Back at the Roi Christophe, I couldn't impress upon the editor how hazardous it was to travel after dark. She dallied at lunch, took forever to check out of her room, and so we left Cap-Haïtien to return to Port-au-Prince much later than I had planned. Still, the loas, despite pitching coconuts at my wife, had been benevolent, and it was I who suggested we stop along the Côte des Arcadins for a drink. From the grand veranda of a resort called Moulin-sur-Mer we sipped our rum sours, watched the sun set over the Golfe de la Gonâves, then went on. A few miles later, we came upon a ghastly accident. Only minutes earlier, two large trucks had collided head-on, their wreckage crisscrossing the road. Several villagers stood nearby, doing nothing, for there was nothing they could do. The nearest police station was a good half-hour away, and not one of the villagers had any EMT training. I had been on the scene of many accidents like this in rural Haiti, had even participated in triage with the Special Forces, but I had no medical expertise to speak of, and the victims in this wreck were doomed long before anyone could show up with the equipment to cut them out of their pancaked cabs.
The moment seemed to provide the editor with an epiphany. "So what do you do if you're in a bad accident?" she wondered out loud. "Isn't there someone you can call?"
"Not out here there isn't," I said. "Not anymore. Not since the troops left."
"You just sit there and die?"
"Yes. You die. You're fucking dead."
Safely back at the Oloffson, we blindly stumbled into an argument, the editor and I. On the walk down from the Citadelle, she said, she had observed me discreetly slipping money into selected pockets. She thought my behavior was misguided. That was not the way to help anybody, she asserted. It only made matters worse, this personalizing of macroproblems; the most meaningful way to change things was to pay your taxes and lobby for legislative reform.
You're absolving yourself of any face-to-face responsibility, I replied hotly. Your sense of altruism is a comfortable abstraction. You detach yourself from individuals as if they were sorry apparitions, congenitally nameless.
Throughout my early twenties, I had lived and worked in the black island-nations of the Caribbean: I had been the grain of salt in a sea of pepper. Whatever insights I might have about race and poverty won't satisfy me or anybody, but it's clear that of all the burdens fate had placed on humanity's shoulders, whites have borne a featherweight load. In Haiti, my name was and always would be blanc. In Creole, the words for "man" and "black" were identical: neg. In Haiti, black was the color of man, and white, unfortunately, was the color of both abandonment and salvation. Please, don't, I would find myself saying to a weathered old peasant showering me with gratitude for some petty and thoroughly inadequate act of charity: a match, a cigarette, a lift. Most often, however, I pushed silently through the shoals of beggars, ignoring their extended hands.
"You gave them money because it makes you feel warm and fuzzy," said the editor, and that made me hit the roof.
My wife intervened, attempting to explain whatever it is about me that requires explanation, and Gary looked on, dismayed, as two more blancs in a centuries-long procession of blancs squabbled over the methods and mechanisms they might best apply, like bandages, when they were intermittently inspired to repair the world.
Bob Shacochis is a contributing editor of Outside. His book about Haiti, The Immaculate Invasion, will be published next year by Viking.
Photographs by MacDuff Everton