PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- For I certify to your Highness ... that there could never be under the sun lands superior in fertility, in mildness of cold and heat, in abundance of good and pure water ... the trees reach to the stars ...

-- Columbus describing the isle of Hispaniola

Your jet banks eastward over the cobalt blue of the Windward Passage and descends to a deep, mountain-ringed horseshoe of lowland flats the squalid, khaki color of land with nothing left to give.

And on the sweaty ride in from the airport, along the dusty, potholed roads flanked with low buildings of decaying concrete, you tell yourself you've seen it all before: the wandering cows and naked children, the green cloud-topped mountains and swaying, overloaded jitneys, the lush scarlet of hibiscus blossoms and flamboyant trees pouring over the high walls of mildewed stone that can never quite contain them. And everywhere the swirl of people: old women riding sidesaddle on basket-laden burros, young women striding regally with impossible bundles balanced untouched atop their heads, young men hefting sacks of sugar cane, boys hawking baskets.

But then you come upon the uniquely Haitian image visible everywhere in this teeming city: a lean black man of indeterminate age hauling a long two-wheeled cart, like a huge furniture dolly, cobbled together from ancient boards and sticks and salvaged auto tires. The cart is piled staggeringly high in back with rusting metal or rocks, or bags of charcoal or broken furniture or stacks of fruit -- a load so great he hangs between the shafts of the cart as if crucified, straining every sweating muscle just to keep it balanced on its sagging axle.

There is clearly no way he can actually pull it. But in Haiti, he pulls it anyway, a figure at once grotesque and heroic, dragging it hopefully into the day as Haiti drags the burden of its tortured and heartbreaking past.

The brouettiere is the very essence of Haiti. He pulls his load through the blaring of horns and the bleating of goats, past the rooting pigs and scrawny, bewildered dogs, through the scent of jasmine and frangipani and the smoke of belching buses and burning garbage dumps and the tumult of the market women selling oranges to the patrolling U.S. Marines in the humvee with the mounted machine gun. He doesn't even see them.

The world of the brouettiere is a world few Americans can even imagine. It's a world without abstract concepts like welfare or security, a world that marries despair with hope, where life and death are so delicately balanced as to be simply different aspects of the same thing. And from that world of endurance and resilience, Haitians have fashioned a world of dazzling spiritual richness that manifests itself in the most vibrant culture in the Caribbean.

The country should be exhausted but throbs with energy. The landscape should be depleted and ugly but remains strangely wild and beautiful. AIDS and hunger are supposed to be pandemic here, so why do the people look so handsome and so strong? The economy is moribund, so why is everyone an entrepreneur? Haitians' ghastly 400-year experience with leadership and institutions is hardly cause for optimism. So why is it, with a failed president about to return and foreign soldiers patrolling outside their houses, that people here keep dancing in the streets?

What do they know that we don't?

No larger than Maryland or Vermont, Haiti conveys its impression of vastness by verticality. The ubiquitous mountains, rising to 8,900 feet, drop generally into the sea without the grace of a plain or even the brief luxury of a beach. Its uncountable valleys and chasms defy communication. And farmers, they like to say, have been killed falling out of cornfields.

-- Selden Rodman,

"Haiti: The Black Republic"

The contrasts and mysteries of Haiti are endless. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it was once the richest -- richer in the 18th century than all the fabled New World colonies of Spain combined. First settled by French pirates, it was made a nation by rebellious African slaves. Haiti's founding father was one of history's most brilliant and fascinating figures: an unschooled slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture whose military genius came to rival that of Napoleon, whose political skill vied with that of Machiavelli and whose vision of humanity ranked with Jefferson's. Yet Haitians have always embraced with greater fervor L'Ouverture's hate-fueled betrayer, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, whose idea of amusement was skinning and roasting his victims alive.

Dessalines particularly relished massacring whites. It was his secretary who said that writing the nation's declaration of independence properly would require "the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull as an inkhorn, his blood for ink and a bayonet for a pen." Haiti's national anthem is "La Dessalienne." Yet for at least 25 years there has been no place in the Caribbean where whites have routinely encountered less racial hostility than in this, the world's first black republic. "I suppose that's because we've learned the hard way by now that there are many kinds of slavery and what whites did to us wasn't necessarily the worst," sighed a well-to-do Haitian businessman the other night in the nearby suburb of Petionville. "We still honor Dessalines because he gave us independence, at whatever cost. But we've had enough Dessalines since then. I would feel a lot better about {returning president Jean-Bertrand} Aristide if I thought he was studying more Toussaint."

While every nation has its horror stories, even an oversimplified tour through Haitian history confronts one with more than the usual catalogue of nightmares.

They began with the Spanish who, having rapidly murdered or worked to death most of the 300,000 Indians they found on Hispaniola, introduced African slaves here in 1510 to work gold mines and sugar plantations in what is now the Dominican Republic. It was the first black slavery in the New World. The French, however, built the major slave economy on Hispaniola. By 1791 the 36,000 whites and 28,000 free mulattoes in what is now Haiti (it was then known as Saint-Domingue) controlled 500,000 slaves and a $140 million annual trade in sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton. Their colony was "the Pearl of the Antilles."

With the elaborate balls and sparkling ornaments of their plantation society, the French constructed something else as well -- a system of slavery whose exquisitely refined cruelties shocked even those contemporaries accustomed to slavery elsewhere. Unlike their counterparts in the American South, where slaves' value as property mitigated to a great extent mistreatment that endangered their lives, slaves in Saint-Domingue were considered expendable, visitors noted in letters and diaries cited by later historians. They were worked to death so often the colony's entire black population had to be replaced about every 20 years. They were also not only routinely flogged to death, but hung by the limbs during the process ("the hammock"), or blown apart with gunpowder or buried up to the neck next to an anthill and smeared with honey. One contemporary writer describes a well-born French woman offhandedly disciplining a careless cook by having her thrown into a red-hot oven.

With all that, localized slave uprisings were both inevitable and relatively common. But what truly ignited Haiti was the French Revolution. The National Assembly in Paris, with visions of the rights of man, granted full political rights to all free people of color here in 1789, but indignant plantation whites in Saint-Domingue furiously refused to comply. When two young mulattoes organized a protest demonstration at Cap Francois, they were strapped to cart wheels with their arms, legs and ribs broken and left to die under the tropical sun.

When the mulattoes, many of them slaveholders themselves, took up arms against the whites in reprisal, black slaves seized the moment to stage their own rebellion, torching plantations, hacking the owners to pieces and impaling white children on pikes.

Then began a 15-year orgy of slaughter and reprisal and factionalism, with alliances shifting almost with the wind. In some areas mulattoes initially sided with the blacks. In others, whites armed their own slaves against the mulattoes. Before it was over Britain and Spain entered the fray hoping to profit from the confusion. The revolutionary government in Paris sent troops both to prevent loss of the colony and to smell out royalist plots among the white settlers. So widespread were the atrocities that roads were routinely hedged with bodiless heads.

Onto the stage at this juncture appeared Toussaint L'Ouverture, a black former stable boy nearly 50 years of age, whose only role in the initial revolt had been to help his white master to escape. Small and homely but shrewd and fearless, he initially joined the Spanish with an army of 600 troops that grew to 4,000. But at a key moment he and his army switched sides without warning and made themselves saviors of the French, claiming promised liberty as their just reward. He then persuaded the British to surrender their captured holdings -- including Port-au-Prince -- to his army instead of the French. Whereupon he turned on the French and mulattoes, defeated them, then invaded and captured the Spanish holdings in what is now the Dominican Republic. By the middle of 1801 he was ruler of all Hispaniola.

L'Ouverture's ambitions, however, involved far more than conquest. With his country in ruins, he set out to restore the economy. He sent blacks back to work on the plantations as free men. He preached the need for hard work and honesty, and sought to heal the racial wounds by welcoming white former planters back as administrators. By respecting contracts, negotiating special trade agreements with the United States and Britain and promoting amnesty, he managed to restore most of the prosperity of the colony. He wasn't looking for total independence from France, only a self-governing colony. That, however, was too much for Napoleon, who by that time governed France and sent an expedition to reimpose slavery. And it was not enough for Dessalines, L'Ouverture's take-no-prisoners lieutenant, who helped the French capture and deport L'Ouverture to die in France, then escaped to raise the slaves again and massacre every white he could find on the island.

Dessalines evicted the French, proclaimed himself emperor of an independent Haiti, and set about tyrannizing his people with the whip and bayonet. He was ambushed and shot to death in 1806, but Haiti's leaders have largely marched to his spirit ever since.

His successor, Henri Christophe, worked 20,000 people to death building the mammoth Citadel on a mountaintop near Cap-Haitien, then shot himself with a silver bullet. Jean-Pierre Boyer united Hispaniola once again for 23 years. But for the rest of the 19th century 22 dictators came and went while the country sank deeper into poverty, terror and superstition. When Sir Spenser St. John arrived in the town of Jacmel in the 1880s, he wrote, "two men were in jail for eating corpses and a third for consuming a child."

In 1912 President M. Cincinnatus Leconte was blown up by a bomb. The following year President Tancrede Auguste was poisoned. In 1915, while returning from a massacre of his political opponents, President V.G. Sam was impaled on the iron fence of the French Embassy and his body torn to pieces by a mob.

By the time Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier took office in 1957, Haitians were ready for a change, and he seemed to promise one. He pictured himself as both a man of science -- he was a physician -- and a man of culture. As a voice of the Negritude movement, he complained that Haitians -- particularly upper-class mulattoes -- paid too much attention to their French cultural roots and not enough to those reaching to Africa.

But Duvalier's idea of Afrocentric culture turned out to be terrorizing the population with voodoo trappings, including a private hit squad called the Tonton Macoutes, named after a sack-bearing bogyman in voodoo lore who wanders the hills at night stealing children. As "president for life" (he died in 1971), he routinely murdered his opponents, then halted funerals to steal their corpses. When a rebel leader named Blucher Philogenes was captured in 1963, Duvalier ordered Philogenes' head cut off, packed in ice and rushed to the Presidential Palace. Stories circulating here at the time claimed that he held late-night sessions with the head, consulting it about future rebel plans. Papa Doc slept one night a year on the tomb of Dessalines, with whom he claimed to be in regular and close communion.

Our past is screaming. ... Dying is beautiful, dying is beautiful.

-- Haitian national anthem,

"La Dessalienne"

There is a kind of grisly symmetry in the centuries of bloodletting that shaped this land. For example, Haitian history tells of a white planter at La Grande Riviere who once sliced a slave's ears off with a razor, had them grilled and forced him to eat them. Just last Friday U.S. soldiers in Les Cayes captured a Haitian sergeant who had sliced part of the ear off a prisoner to force a similar meal.

Yet if poverty and savagery were all there were to Haiti, the brouettiere would never bother to pull his cart. What visitors here find most compelling is not the country's history of death but its throbbing and uncontainable sense of life, which spills out in good years and bad through the innumerable avenues of Haitian art.

So omnipresent and irresistible is the creative impulse here that every Haitian seems to crafting something decorative, or amusing, or ingenious or useful from the experiences and materials of his everyday life. If Haitian "naive" paintings, with their vibrant colors and crowded canvases and deceptively simple figures, have long been world-famous, what's less often appreciated is the staggering amount and variety of woodcarving, basketry, metal work, fabric design, toy making, beadwork, sculpture, ceramics and other folk art visible on every street corner and mountain path.

Though most of it is obviously designed to make money, there is simply far too much of it done far too well to be explained by economics alone, particularly in a country where tourists have been virtually nonexistent for at least three years. It's as if the terrifying weight of Haitian history and daily struggle is constantly forcing from the people a glittering counterstream of creativity as playful as it often is profound.

In the harbor-side slum of Cite Soleil, a Hogarthian realm where one can encounter a corpse en route through the throng in a wheelbarrow, entrepreneurial artisans vie in the production of whimsical cigar box-size toy cars fashioned from beaten metal, jouncing dizzily atop coat-hanger springs. The raw materials are gleaned from nearby dumps.

In Cap-Haitien, journalists recently encountered an inspired artisan crafting "Nikons" from tin cans.

The current U.S. intervention has already injected itself into the naive landscapes of Haitian paintings, naive American soldiers in naive humvees with naive M-16s. On the road to Petionville the other day, a roadside handicrafter had triumphantly augmented his stock of gaily painted papier-mache parrots with a small corps of gaily camouflaged naive tanks.

If the artifacts of the middle class, like office buildings, stores and automobiles, tend to be drab in Haiti, the most gay Haitian artwork of all adorns the jitneys that, both literally and figuratively, lift Haiti's ever-mobile poor above the pedestrian. The bus-bodied little trucks, known as tap-taps, are virtual rolling canvases, with every inch decorated with portraits, scrollwork, fretwork, embellishments and murals as well as such requisite exhortations and names as "Merci Seigneur," "Belle Amour" and "Surprise de Dieu." The same sort of artwork adorns even the back-country tap-taps, behemoth converted dump trucks that wheeze up heart-stopping mountain roads festooned with rooftop passengers and dangling chickens.

The naive gaiety of Haiti's most obviously commercial artwork can become, at times, something of a cliche -- reinforcing for the casual visitor or purchaser a sort of happy native stereotype sharply at odds with the world of the brouettiere and the profound duality that comes with it. But in the best of Haitian art, that duality is inescapable. There among the happy colors and childlike scenes, the people may be working happily in the fields and even smiling. But their eyes have a haunting look of terror.

And in perhaps the most famous monument of Haitian art, in Saint Trinite Cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince, the mural of the Last Supper comments wryly on Haiti and its origins as a nation: Jesus and 11 of his Apostles are all black. The remaining figure, Judas, is white.

Whatever ghosts haunt the Haitian spirit, however, they're in carnival dress this week. On back-country roads and on the streets of Port-au-Prince people halt their tireless industry long enough to crowd around U.S. troops and stare at them in delight.

Humvees roll in twos and threes among the market women with their bananas and the palm-frond weavers selling hats. Flak-jacketed troops on foot patrols, M-16s at the ready, pace the leafy streets of Petionville in threes, meeting only smiles.

There is rarely much verbal communication, because relatively few Haitians speak English or even French, and almost no GIs speak Creole, and the troops often appear edgy at the size and high spirits of the crowds.

But what looks to an American like an alien occupation appears to most Haitians like freedom at last. Tuesday, when U.S. troops finally occupied the last bastions of Haitian authority -- Haitian Army headquarters, the nearby Presidential Palace and the headquarters of the hated secret police -- people came in hundreds just to stand outside the fence and stare open-mouthed at the sight. They appeared particularly delighted at the female soldiers blocking the gate, some of the youngest of whom, even with camouflage gear and M-16s, were having a hard time looking tough.

"I want the Americans to stay forever," said Patrick Julio, waving happily to a friend in the crowd near the palace. "This never belonged to us before. The {Haitian} soldiers inside would point weapons at us and humiliate us if we came near, or run out and beat us for no reason. We never think we could come here and not be afraid."

Market women moved among the onlookers selling beer from coolers atop their heads. Others arrived hawking candy and woven baskets. At the end of the block a brouettiere returning from some mission halted for a moment to take in the scene. His cart was newly empty. And he was smiling.