Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Haiti: This is no vacation

But visit to scarred-yet-inspiring island will change any life

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11Should there be a disclaimer? Something to get me off the legal hook, maybe protect me from liability and litigious travellers and their solicitors?

After all, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada have this to say about the land I've chosen to profile as a destination for the truly adventurous traveller:

"Travel Report, Haiti. Canadians travelling to Haiti should exercise a high degree of caution due to the ongoing political tensions and the high levels of criminal activity and violence throughout the country."

I might also add don't drink the water, make sure you get ALL your shots and steer clear of "the Voodoo man," who may threaten to turn you into a goat. (True story).

There. That should cover it. On with the review.

Haiti is a hard land. For the visitor, everything there is hard, from the time you're swarmed by indigent men looking for work carrying your bags upon arrival at the airport in Port-au-Prince to the time you depart, passing through the gauntlet of security and customs checkpoints on the way home.

On top of that, Haiti is a heartbreaking land. This has always been the case but it's particularly true now, as the country still struggles, two years later, to dig out from the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left hundreds of thousands injured or homeless.

Let's be clear. Haiti is no vacation.

But while other destinations entice tourists with promises that vacationing there may be a life-altering experience, travelling in Haiti absolutely will change your life.

As much as it can break your heart, it will also melt it. There is a definite roller-coaster feel to travel there. On one road you may witness something that will leave you in tears but just one block over an encounter with the people will have you laughing and making new friends.

Only on few trips outside of Africa will you see a more dramatic contrast between abject squalor and splendour. Haiti is probably the most mysterious, strangest country in the Western World, a land with a vibrant, living culture, art that takes your breath away and music that leaves dancers sweating blood and drummers possessed.

History in Haiti is alive, as current as the daily headlines, all of it flowing in an uninterrupted and frequently bloody stream from the world's first successful slave revolt in 1791 to today's burning-tire protests on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Visit the Haitian historical museum near the now-collapsed National Palace and you run the chance, or the risk, of seeing both in the same day, leg irons and instruments of torture from the days of slavery to the political turmoil it engendered still roiling the streets today.

A truly spectacular historic attraction is the famous Citadel in the island's north, a morning's drive outside the city of Cap Haitian. The fortress on the mountaintop was built in the early 19th century by post-revolt king Henri Christophe to ensure the former French slaveholders, under the leadership of Napoleon, never returned.

There, you can see history literally lying at your feet, musket balls scattered on and around the grounds, blackened brass buttons from military uniforms of the Napoleonic age. Just walking around the huge and seemingly haunted fortress, the largest ever built in the Americas, with its cannons pointed towards breathtaking seaward vistas will leave you transfixed.

Below the looming Citadel is the equally beguiling site of the ruins of Christophe's Palace, Sans-Souci, where you can see the remains of what was surely an opulent and spectacular court to rival those of Europe. In fact, it was modelled to be a tropical cousin to Versailles.

All of this is nestled among the verdant mountains that ring the turquoise waters of the sea, where you can find some of the most beautiful, even paradisal, beaches in the world, including the famous beaches of Labadie.

While that beach may be the most well-known, made so by the cruise ships that visit regularly, there are actually more beautiful ones along the coast. Though difficult to access, they are truly worth the journey, if only for the seclusion. On any given day, you may be the only one there.

But one of the most compelling aspects about experiencing life in Haiti is the spirituality -- voodoo expressed through art, music, ritual and daily living. New Orleans is a mere parish while Haiti is the Vatican of voodoo.

If it can be arranged, seeing a real ritual is an experience you'll never forget. But it's definitely not for the faint of heart, especially during the All Souls "Gedde" celebrations, when adherents are possessed by spirits of the grave.

Perhaps the best place to get a taste of it is at the Oluffson Hotel in the heart of Port-au-Prince. The former presidential place, built in the gingerbread style, has a flamboyant history all of its own. You will see the names of the famous people who have stayed there, from Mick Jagger to author Graham Greene.

But the true identity of the hotel is expressed through the voodoo-inspired art on the walls and on the grounds. If you can, visit on Thursday night, when the house band RAM plays. The "Racine (or roots) music is a spicy gumbo of voodoo rhythms, married to funk and rock. It may qualify as the best regular party in the Western World.

I suppose the biggest objection to visiting Haiti is guilt. How does the visitor feel witnessing so much suffering and obvious misery as a tourist? The truth is the culture shock is most certainly overwhelming.

The first thought for the Haiti novice upon arriving at the hotel is sure to be "Why did I come, what am I doing here?"

But very quickly, that is replaced by other emotions: gratitude for what you have, awe at the strength of the people and wonder at the vitality of the culture on a scarred but still beautiful land. The guilt of the misery tourist? That, too, usually fades.

I have yet to meet a serious visitor to the island who has not returned a changed person, willing to take on projects to help out in Haiti from home and wanting to return to offer support and love again and again and again.

Haiti most certainly is not a vacation. But it can become a vocation.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012 D1

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