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Taking a Rain Check on Cap-Haïtien

March 30, 2013

Hailing a tap tap in Thursday’s early morning darkness, I set off bound for Cap-Haïtien, a historically and commercially important city on Haiti’s north coast.  The ride to Saint-Marc was very unusual, as, with the exception of a gentleman who boarded after I did and alighted before me, I was the only passenger.  As I left Saint-Marc, the sky was cloudy and very dark toward the north.  I felt that was not a good omen, but little did I realize what was to come.  At L’Estère, I was delayed an hour as the driver waited for the tap tap to fill to maximum capacity.

North from the arid landscape of Gonaïves, I entered what was uncharted territory for me.  The cacti gave way to large trees, palms later joining the mix.   The landscape became verdant with a lush understory of bananas, bamboo, ferns and large-leafed tropicals.  House yards were festooned with vivid red hibiscus and creamy white daturas.  As we reached the high passes, the tap tap straining on the steep grades, the views across the valleys far below were breathtaking.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take any pictures, being shoehorned into the corner of the back seat of a small Toyota pickup along with two others and our baggage.

The climb into the Massif du Nord, Haiti’s most rugged and imposing mountain range, was reminiscent of BC mountain roads.  Each curve blended into the next with frequent switchbacks and very few straight stretches.  The greenery and the gloom added to my impression.

As we began to descend we encountered fog that gradually turned to fine rain and by the time we reached Cap-Haïtien, developed into a steady drencher.   But rain or no rain, I had come to see the city and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.  Setting out on foot, I had no clear idea of where I was going and had lost my sense of direction, there being no sun to orient me.  The loopholes in the gates of Cap-Français, the city’s old quarter, established my bearings.  Stopping to ask people directions to my intended initial destination of the city square, I was flabbergasted that no one seemed to know anything.  Asking about the city’s forts got the same result.  Finally I found an old woman with whom my inquiries about the cathedral, a very prominent city landmark on the square, registered, and I set out in the direction she indicated.

Cap-Haïtien is set out in a regular grid, the streets numbered and the avenues lettered, a system introduced during the American occupation or 1915 to 1934 and never changed, although some of the original street names appear secondarily to the alphanumeric signage.  This makes finding things and calculating approximate distances very simple.

Not having learned my Mole Saint-Nicolas lesson to carry rain-gear, by the time I reached the square I was soaked to the skin. As I was taking pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral, a very pleasant young woman asked if I wanted an umbrella.   I told her a street vendor had offered me one for $20, a very reasonable price until he indicated he meant $20 US, more than I was prepared to pay.  She told me that the price should have indeed been $20 Haitian, and called over a woman who had a small selection at that price.  I chose an electric green one, and eventually I dried out under its shelter.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Dome of cathedral

Aluminium dome of cathedral

City hall off square

City hall off square

I then set out to find a hotel.  I will not go into detail of my frustrating search, encountering hotel staff who demanded double the rates I had seen on the Internet.  Eventually I resigned myself to a room in a less than savoury establishment for a price higher than I would be willing to pay for similar accommodations in Canada, but somewhat lower than the local competition.

After registering, I set out to explore the city.  The old quarter is charming.  Most of the multi-storeyed buildings open through rows of high-arched double doors onto the narrow streets, overhung by the tiers of balconies above.  In stark contrast to Saint-Marc’s grey drabness, Cap-Haïtien called to mind a project of an imaginative child with a Crayola 120-count box of crayons, a riot of colours that, like a wildflower garden, somehow comes together in a totally pleasing way.   The streets are clean and smooth, and even those that are not paved have sidewalks.

Balconies overhang the narrow streets.

Balconies overhang the narrow streets.

Haitians aren't afraid of colour!

Haitians aren’t afraid of colour!

I love the colours and the roof on this house.

I love the colours and the clay tile roof on this house.

This roof shows definite French influence.

This roof shows definite French influence.

IMG_3825

The colour schemes work

Another ice cream cupcake building.

Another ice cream cupcake building.

Street level double doors

Double door open onto immaculate streets

I wandered, moving toward whatever caught my eye.  I chanced upon the Iron Market, but decided not to brave the congestion of the market or the quagmire it had become in the rain.  I saw some impressive churches, but they lacked signage to indicate exactly what denomination they represented.  It saddened me to see officially declared heritage homes left unprotected to suffer the ravages of weather, the encroachment of vegetation, and the damage done by vandals.

The Iron Market

My picture doesn’t do The Iron Market justice

A rather interesting large church.

A rather interesting large church.

An old heritage home left to weather away.

Les Résidences César, an old heritage home, left to the elements.

I stopped to eat at a bar resto near the waterfront, a typical Haitian establishment with loud kompa music, attentive yet unobtrusive service, and totally predictable fare.  After my meal I walked along the harbour to see if I could pick out Fort Picolet, but the rain obscured everything in the distance.  No one I approached could give me any clear indication of its location.  How does one live their life in a city with great historical monuments and not even know they exist?

I then hailed a moto to take me to the ancient Cap-Haïtien Penitentiary.  I had a street address for it, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect in terms of access.  I was delighted that despite the fact it is not normally open to the public, the old gatekeeper not only allowed me in, he took me on a guided tour, telling me what he knew of the history of the complex.  I did not catch every word of his explanations, but I had read enough about the prison to make sense of what he told me.  Afterward he consented to allowing me to wander at will to explore further and take pictures.

Gate of prison; guard bids me adieu

My very cooperative guard at the main gates of the prison.

The complex is immense, presenting a high and very timeworn wall in sections of obviously varying age, running about 600 feet along the street and going back perhaps 120 feet.  These estimates I think are fairly accurate, based upon pacing out the length of a single slab of concrete in the street, counting the expansion joints for the length of the wall and multiplying to arrive at my result.   The only distinguishing features are the two iron gates, the smaller simply set into the wall, and the larger between pilasters, and an odd chamfer in one corner.

Complex extends far down Rue 21

Complex extends far down Rue 21

The wall surrounds a number of buildings of varying age and architecture.  Begun as a prison in 1733, new buildings were added as needed, and existing ones renovated over and over, particularly during the American occupation of 1915 to 1934.  Parts of it extended to two storeys and an attic, as an existing wall and stairway attest.

Windows in officers' quarters; floors removed by vandals

Windows in officers’ quarters; window frames, flooring and floor joists removed by vandals.

Stairway in courtyard that once led to women's prison

Stairway in courtyard that once led to women’s prison

In 1740, a charitable home for men who were ill, disabled, or without means, named Providence, was founded next to the prison.   In 1782, it was converted into a military hospital and greatly expanded over the next few years.  It was merged with the prison after Haiti gained its independence.  It was finally commissioned as the principal prison in northern Haiti.  Current plans call for part of the prison becoming a cultural and tourist center.

Penitentiary cell block converted to offices for preservation society.

Penitentiary cell block converted to offices for preservation society.

Cell block in newer section of penitentiary

Cell block in newer section of penitentiary

The original prison was segregated by race, sex and social stature.  Most cells were spacious by modern standards, and each had a door and a window opening onto a central courtyard.  Cells on the upper level were accessed off balconies running the length of the buildings.  Twenty-two more secure cells housed prisoners deemed dangerous.  The prison featured a kitchen, storerooms and all needed for its operation.  In addition to the chapel, a room was reserved for the worship of Our Lady of Mercy dedicated to the “redemption of captives”.

Cell block of old prison

Cell block of old prison

Individual cell

Exterior of individual cell

In the yard was a covered well that once supplied both the needs of the prison as well as a public fountain that once stood outside the walls at the southeast corner.  The arched chamfer I had noted there was a remnant of it.

Today the prison is protected, but before that protection was put in place, the part of the complex corresponding to the old Cap-Français prison was looted in 1994, and stripped of everything the looters could use—door and window frames, flooring and joists, roofing, plumbing and electrical.  Since that time it has been only a ruin.

Few doors escaped the looters.

Few doors escaped the looters.

This old prison, stripped of its bars, chains and locks, save at the gates, somehow lacks the impact I have come to expect from places of incarceration.   There are no echoes  of the loneliness, the desperation, the fear or the hopelessness that prisons engender.  Certainly there is no hint of the horrors of the Duvalier years when part of the prison was used to detain and torture the opponents of the dictator.  Now it is just a benign cluster of deteriorated buildings behind impressively large crumbling walls, without menace, without even coldness.  Rather it is simply old, and having reverted to the gentleness of its Providence beginnings, a rather pleasant place to spend a couple of hours.

Leaving the prison, I decided to walk back to the hotel, zigzagging my way through the streets, taking pictures of whatever interested me, and stopping to chat with some of the locals, who always beamed with pride when I told them I thought their city was beautiful.

A lovely old brick home hidden behind a spectacular yard.

A lovely old brick home hidden behind a spectacular yard.

Intricate ironwork on the gates of a college.

Intricate ironwork on the gates of a college.

My hotel turned out to be much worse than I imagined.  The bed was unforgiving and what passed for a pillow weighed about 10 kg and felt like it was filled with rocks.  There was soap, but no toilet paper.  Fortunately I have learned to carry that commodity, as it is about as common in Haitian bathrooms as hot water.  Although I had no interest in it, I noted the channel selector on the television was broken.  The power went out several times, and each time a generator very near my room roared to life, sounding like a tractor.  The other guests had come not to sleep but to party, and their raucous carryings-on continued until the power was finally cut at 2AM, stilling not only the carousing, but also my air conditioner.  A large hole in my window screens let in every mosquito in the area, and I spent a couple of hours covering myself entirely with a sheet until I could no longer stand the heat, and then doing battle with the greedy little pests until I decided I preferred the heat.

A couple hours of this was enough for me.  Having had no sleep at all, I splashed some water from the pipe that served as a shower on my face (the bathroom sink was missing), brushed my teeth and was out the door.  In the morning darkness I found it still raining, so decided my best option was to cut my losses, curtail my visit, and return to Cap-Haïtien another time.  I found a moto taxi and headed for the tap tap station at the gates of the old city.

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