“So, where’s the big trip this year?”
I get this a lot. It’s a common question from work colleagues and acquaintances who are curious about my exotic travel intentions. It’s always well-intentioned. Like most harmless Canadian small talk, it’s motivated by the possibility of having better weather to discuss than eastern Canada in February.
“I’m thinking Haiti.”
The response is always the same: “Oh, to do volunteer work?”
“No, to travel around.” I watch the faces crumple. You can see the thought process:
That place is a disaster.
The only reason to go is to do volunteer work.
Only a terrible person would go to Haiti and not do volunteer work.
Why on Earth would someone go on vacation there?
I don’t know what any of this means.
“Oh! You’re going where?”
Pause for a ranty tangent. I do not want to talk about voluntourism. I have huge, loud, philosophical problems with the concept. I do not have the relevant historical, cultural, and technical knowledge to show up, be of value, and demonstrate I know the first thing about “fixing” Haiti – or any country – in a two-week visit. End of ranty tangent.
Haiti is best known in my corner of the world as a bad news story. For most of the twentieth century, Haiti has been a foreign aid laboratory for Western governments, economic hot mess, pariah dictatorship complete with trade embargoes, and was even occupied by the United States at one point.
The present narrative is singular and focused: earthquake. The 2010 earthquake replaced the political mess preceding it as the story of Haiti. But as the global media’s interest in Haiti as disaster porn waned, nothing – positive or negative – emerged to replace it. No one really knows what’s been happening in Haiti since 2010.
That’s where tourism comes in.
Most islands in the Caribbean have an alluring travel offering. Haiti’s neighbours, including the Dominican Republic (sharing the island of of Hispaniola with Haiti), Jamaica, and Cuba offer bargain package holidays, private luxury rentals, bottomless glasses of rum. In fact, Haiti was one of those destinations in the 1950s and 1960s, until it wasn’t.
I’m reading everything I can find. Travel forums, news blogs, history, writing by Haitian authors, blogs from the Haitian diaspora, fiction, and accounts of the financial, economic, and human toll of the foreign response to the 2010 earthquake. As you might expect, most travel guides are not helpful:
Luckily, there is a Haiti travel guide by Bradt, thoroughly researched and written by long-time Lonely Planet author Paul Clammer. His speciality is places best described as “You’re going where?” making him a perfect choice for detailing the challenges and thrill of a country like Haiti. He also manages a Facebook page for the guide, with up-to-date travel stories, and other fun and interesting information.
The more I read, the better I understand the historic context for Haiti’s current state, but I remain curious about what to expect traveling there in 2015 for fun. In an internet sea of travel information, there is basically nothing about leisure travel. My conclusion? Since the country is presently (relatively) stable, Haiti is a destination with nowhere to go but up.
To address the very real challenge of travelling in a complicated country like Haiti, I’ve booked a group trip with G Adventures. I’ve traveled with the company in the past and I have a lot of confidence in them and their approach, particularly in using local vendors and making sure the money that gets spent there, to the greatest extent possible, stays there. In case you’re wondering, no, they haven’t asked me to talk about this, and, yes, I’m paying for this trip 100% out of my own pocket.
I’m keeping expectations modest. I want to learn about this fascinating country by seeing it, meeting some people, and eating as much delicious food as possible. And to drink some Haitian-brewed Prestige beer, a two-time World Beer Cup gold medalist in the American-style lager category. All indicators are this will be an interesting journey, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.
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