HAITI IS THE poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Mountains cover 80 percent of the area, with most of the 6 million Haitians crowded into the remaining 20 per-cent. More than a million live in the dirty, crowded, bustling, colorful and intriguing capital of Port-au-Prince.
And when your plane touches down there a scant two hours after leaving Miami, you'll find yourself in another world.
Port-au-Prince is like few other major cities in North America. It teems in a way a city like Bangkok teems. It's a constant symphony of sounds: engines, livestock, shouts, and the occasional rhythm of drums all mix into an auditory experience that cannot be communicated through a typewriter.
The sight of the brightly painted "tap-taps" or taxi-buses, the vivid contrast of the suburban mountains with the bustling city below, the afternoon thunderclouds forming in the hills, the poverty framed by brilliant bougainvillea, the cheerful country people in their colorful clothes, conspire to make Haiti something of a sensual Disneyland.
Unfortunately, when most Americans think of Haiti, the world's first black republic, they think of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the iron-man president-for-life who ruled Haiti for 17 years. The physician-dictator is gone now, remembered with an extravagant "Eternal Flame" across the street from where his son, President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, resides in palacial splendor in an official residence that resembles the U.S. White House.
"Baby Doc" rules with a similar iron -- if less competent -- hand. Although he has made some moves to modify the legacy of terror, and he claims to love nothing more than to roam the city to be among his people, in fact he seldom appears in public. When he does, the streets are thick with security personnel.
While carefree tourists walk along the sidewalk directly in front of the palace, many fearful natives won't. Machine-gun toting guards sit in emplacements on the palace grounds and keep a stern eye on anyone trying to get a too-close look through the fence at the Duvalier home.
It's easy to see why there are doubts about the stability of the regime. The average daily salary for a worker in Haiti is $2.65. The poorly run government keeps the cost of consumer goods high, and in increasing numbers more and more rural Haitians are making their way to Port-au-Prince in search of jobs that don't exist. The unemployment rate in Haiti is 50 percent. The rate of underemployment is 80 percent.
Haitians are not happy with the status quo, but any unfavorable remarks about the government are made in hushed tones. As one former Haitian lawyer, now a businessman, told me, "I gave up practicing law because it did not pay to win a case against the government." A former "boat-person" refugee told me that after he was jailed in Miami for illegal immigration he pleaded with the authorities to let him stay in the American jail. He said life in Florida jail was much better for him than a free life in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
But for nonpolitical tourists seeking a hassle-free vacation, negatives can become positives. Prices are reasonable for the Caribbean and, without ignoring charges by opponents of the regime alleging political repression and official corruption, it is an unavoidable fact that the strong Duvalier government makes Haiti a conveniently safe place for Americans to visit.
Nowhere is the obvious division between the haves and the have-nots more clear than in the affluent suburb of Petionville. Situated about half a mile up the mountain and 10 degrees cooler than the capital, Petionville is the home of Haiti's upper class and the location of a number of top hotels. There are gorgeous houses with pools, opulent restaurants, trendy boutiques with goods from around the world.
Petionville is the part of Port-au-Prince where an American tourist feels most comfortable. Try a meal at LeBelvedere, located just off Pan American Avenue. This is a fine French restaurant with outdoor dining on a patio that provides a splendid view of Port-au-Prince below and the harbor beyond. Prices are reasonable, considering the food and white-glove service.
For the wealthy Haitian, or the American who doesn't mind spending a dollar, Port-au-Prince offers comfortable accommodations. From the famous off-beat Hotel Oloffson with its gingerbread design, where you half expect to see the ghost of Ernest Hemingway around any corner, to the top-dollar Habitacion Le-Clerc -- 10 cottages, each with its own pool -- you can stay in comfort in Haiti. and with casinos and exotic nightclubs sprinkled throughout the city, this can be a haven for night owls as well.
Your days in Port-au-Prince, though, may be a different story. To wander the streets of the capital may not be a relaxing experience for the sensitive traveler. Hoards of young boys will descend on you. Hire one for a small tip because, if for no other reason, he will keep the rest of the flock away from you. See the palace, the harbor, the art museum and the cathedral. Ask your young guide to take you to some galleries off the main street if you care to buy some of Haiti's distinctive art (and can distinguish quality works from mass-produced schlock). And, by all means, visit the Iron Market, where you can buy high quality woodwork and textiles at bargain prices.
Although the city may frighten you at times, be comforted by the knowledge that there is little or no street crime against tourists in Haiti. You will be safe almost anywhere in the city at almost any time -- something that cannot be said about some other Caribbean cities or, for that matter, about many U.S. cities. American dollars are interchangeable with the Haitian gourde (worth 20 cents) as the Haitian currency floats in value with the U.S. dollar on the world money markets. But, by all means, be sure to bargain for whatever you buy. Start by offering a third of the asking price.
When you venture outside the capital, you will see the best of what Haiti has to offer the tourist; beautiful scenery. Expanses of mountains, wild flowers, clear waters, and historic ruins.
Although the beaches of Haiti are not exceptional by Caribbean standards, they certainly are acceptable. I stayed at the brand new Club Med about 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince, near Montrois. The beach is less pristine than you'd find, say, in the Bahamas, but with the dramatic sight of the mountains rising only a few miles away, the setting is superior to most beach resorts in the Caribbean.
Indeed, the real beauty of Haiti is found in its lush, green mountains. About an hour above Port-au-Prince you can find Kenscoff, and then Furcy, two tiny villages nestled a mile above the city amid waterfalls and bustling with merchants carrying their wares in baskets on their heads. You have to blink to remember you are only two hours out of Miami.
About four hours to the north is one of Haiti's most visited ruins. Cap Hatien is a tranquil little picture city of 40,000 crucial to the country's violent past. It was the city of Henri Christophe, one of Haiti's terrible and fascinating rulers. He made Cap Hatien the richest city in the Caribbean, enslaving thousands to build his castle, Sans Souci, and then tried to defend his riches by building a fort, Citadelle Laferriere, balanced on a jagged cliff half a mile above the town. Eventually his castle became his tomb, when Christophe committed suicide in the face of his oncoming enemies. A trip to his lost empire involves a jolting ride by bus, Land Rover, and mule, but leaves a haunting and beautiful memory.
Along the southern coast of Haiti is the handsome town of Jacmel. Many of the hotels offer excursions to Jacmel, highlighted by a picnic on its fine beach.
The climate in Haiti is warm and sunny year-round. The people are friendly and receptive to American tourists. But more importantly, unlike some other Caribbean destinations, Haiti is not just another stop on the Love Boat cruise. It's a physical and emotional experience that forces you to react to its throbbing, moving and rhythmic vitality -- and perhaps learn something firsthand about conditions in a potentially volatile area of the West Indies.