25 May 2014

Eight Hours, Three Days and a Horse

"You must see the Citadelle."

These words or similar, have been issued to me on many an occasion both before I set off for Haiti and since I have been here. As I have come to learn that this iconic heritage site lies at the centre of much of Haiti's colonial history, I knew that I could not let my 28 days come to an end without paying it a visit.

On Monday morning (probably last Monday, if you are on Greenwich Mean Time) I set off with a small volunteering group to Cap-Haïtien, an area situated in the north of Haiti. It's an eight-hour drive up to the guest house there and so I wanted to make sure the journey would be as comfortable as possible; with a book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera - very well written), headphones, fully-charged camera, nibbles and plenty of fluids in tow, I was armed and ready to go.

We made it to the house, a homely building tucked behind Cap's main boulevard overlooking the sea, in just under eight hours which I was incredibly grateful for, despite spending most of that time fast asleep (an achievement in itself - I cannot begin to describe the roughness of some of the roads here). I am somewhat embarrassed to say that the very first thing I did once I had lumbered my bags up the stairs and into my new room was enquire about wifi (first world problems) - so that I could continue blogging and connect with friends and family back in England via Skype. The wonders of technology!

I had organised a tour of the Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci Palace for myself via Voyages Lumière for the next morning (excellent service - thanks to Jacqui and the team for being so great!) and so I got an early night. It was about a 45-minute drive from the guest house to the visitors' "pitstop" in Milot, a check-in point at the very bottom of the mountain. It would have been too dangerous to drive up to the fortress, I was told, as it had rained heavily the night before. This "dilemma", however, was no problem at all for me because the only other way up was by horse! I had never ridden a horse before and so I was incredibly excited. The first few seconds were slightly daunting but it was an absolute joy after that. I was even reluctant to let one of the guides take the reins on some of the steeper and narrower inclines because I was convinced I had mastered the art! The hour-and-a-half horse ride up the mountain provided some amazing views.

Once we had reached the top, I was given a great one-on-one tour by a friendly, chatty Haitian man (who for some reason reminded me of my dad!) named Johnny. His English, he told me, was completely self-taught by ear and "may therefore be hard to understand", but I told him that that was nonsense because he is pretty much fluent. The fortress was not affected by the earthquake, and I was surprised to discover that this was despite the fact that the walls have no foundation and were handmade by workers using stone, mud, limestone and animals' blood. The creation itself was very impressive, but what was perhaps more interesting to me was the fact that I was standing in one of the very fortresses that was used in combat against the French post-independence and thus relates to Haiti's slave rebellion pre-1804 (it was Henri Christophe, a key leader in the rebellion, who had commissioned for this fortress to be built and who previously lent his name to the Citadelle before it took the Laferrière title).

Unfortunately it was too dangerous for me to ride a horse for a significant portion of the way down, and so I donned some old trainers and walked down some pretty steep and winding pathways with Johnny to the half-way "pitstop". I was able to re-mount at this point, which I was pleased about. Once we had returned safely to the base of the mountain, I was then taken to Sans-Souci Palace - the infamous royal palace in which Henri Christophe committed suicide in 1820 following the paralysis of half of his body. Again, being amongst these ruins was greatly sobering, and I felt privileged to be in a space which played such a key role in Haiti's rich history.

A moment of down-time was necessary after a busy morning. I went up to the Mont Joli Hotel for a cold drink and a brief swim.

After dinner we took a walk up the boulevard and stopped at a nearby restaurant for coffee (milkshake for me - soursop and milk. Absolutely amazing.) and ice-cream.

The next morning was equally as busy as the morning before. I accompanied the volunteering group to some small farms and schools in Dondon, a more rural community in Cap-Haitien. As part of their agricultural works the farms and schools had been gifted with goats as a source of milk and the group wanted to monitor the effectiveness of this initiative.

I'm not sure I was quite dressed for the occasion (note to self: mud and espadrilles do not mix) but arriving at the school and having a group of wonderfully happy school kids sing songs to me (again! How lucky am I?) made me forget all about the possibility of falling head-first onto the floor and ruining my all-white get-up.

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