My first time in Haiti I traveled there to begin searches to find Kirtland’s Warbler, an endangered species of bird that nests in Michigan and winters in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. The winter before we found one on the north coast of the Dominican Republic just a few miles from the Haitian border and reason suggested that they might be in Haiti if they were hiding out close by in the DR. Before making my trek, I contacted the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince where I was informed that if I was going to travel to Haiti I needed to do it sooner rather than later. “If you’re coming, come now or else,” I was told.
“Or else what,” I asked.
“Or else pretty soon this place is going to be a war zone and I can’t guarantee that we will get you out,” was the reply.
In 1986 I was rapidly ridding myself of my fear of almost everything and I heard the message from the Embassy more as an invitation than as a warning. “I’ll be on the Eastern airlines flight to Port-au-Prince arriving Saturday afternoon at 2:00. Can you meet me at the airport?”
“We will have a car and driver waiting for you at the airport,” I was told. “While you are in country you will travel only to places where the driver takes you. You are not to use local transportation including local taxi’s, you are not to leave the city under any circumstances without prior approval of the Embassy and you will under NO circumstances have any contact whatsoever with Haitian men in blue uniforms who carry a side arm in their holster. Am I abundantly clear on this Mr. Faanes?”
A few days later as the purple ink dried in my passport I heard a voice with a heavy patois accent behind me say, “Excuse me, monsieur, are you from the Embassy American?
Alec was a slightly built Haitian man about 30 years old who held the prestigious job of driving people around Port-au-Prince when they came to visit the American Embassy. Alec was extremely lucky because unemployment in Haiti at the time was about 70 percent and in a country where the average Haitian made about $100 US per YEAR, having a job like the one he held that carried with it so much responsibility was a major accomplishment and not something to be taken lightly.
We left the airport and traveled across the hectic streets of Port-au-Prince toward Petonville, an upscale suburb perched on a mountainside high above the scorching streets of the capital. There I checked into a hotel that the Embassy had selected for me. I had no plans until Monday morning when I was supposed to report to the Embassy which left Sunday completely free. As he prepared to leave Alec asked me what I wanted to do the following day. At the time I had not yet been to Cuba and had not yet seen a tawny-shouldered blackbird and with no plans at the time for ever getting to Cuba and knowing that the bird nested along a river 3 hours north of Port-au-Prince, I told Alec that I wanted to travel to the Riviere Artibonite to look for a bird.
“I will meet you at reception precisely at 8:00 tomorrow morning monsieur.”
Alec and I traveled north out of Port-au-Prince in direct contradiction of the explicit warning of the Embassy to not even think about leaving the city without their prior approval and as we drove north we passed all sorts of men in blue uniforms each packing a side arm in a holster on their hip. Each one caused Alec to say in a voice slightly louder than a whisper, “fucking Macoutes!” After the 8th or 9th time this happened I asked what he meant.
“Those are the Tontons Macoutes. They are Duvalier’s death squad. If you do something they don’t like they kill you and don’t ask questions. Duvalier has them because he is fearful of the people so he just kills us when he wants someone dead and the fucking Macoutes do the killing.”
Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the vile, despicable, murderous and hate-filled former dictator of Haiti
Wikipedia has this to say about the delightful former dictator of Haiti Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Jean-Claude Duvalier (born July 3, 1951) was the President of Haiti from 1971 until his overthrow by a popular uprising in 1986. He succeeded François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, his father, as the ruler of Haiti following the older man's death in 1971. After assuming power, he introduced cosmetic changes to his father's regime and delegated much authority to his advisors, though thousands of Haitians were killed or tortured, and hundreds of thousands fled the country. He maintained a notoriously lavish lifestyle (including a state-sponsored US$3 million wedding in 1980), and made millions from involvement in the drug trade and from selling body parts from dead Haitians while poverty among his people remained the most widespread for any country in the Western Hemisphere.
Now that we were 50 miles north of the city and far away from any protection that the Embassy could provide I understood why I had been warned to not get anywhere near Haitian men in a blue uniform carrying a side arm in a holster on their hip. Sometimes it just takes a little extra for me to have things sink in.
Tawny-shouldered blackbird image by Caribmotion
Two hours later we arrived along the banks of the Riviere Artibonite where I found several tawny-shouldered blackbirds hopping around in the wetland created by a rice paddy. As I watched them I was surrounded by a herd of Haitian children each jabbering in patois that I could not understand. Eventually one of them began rubbing my left forearm as another lifted my shirt from my pants and looked at my stomach. As this was occurring a third kid lifted up my pant leg and began rubbing my left calf. Asking Alec what they were saying he informed me “You are the first blanc (white person) they have ever seen and they are checking you out to see if you are blanc all over.”
Most of the Haitian countryside looks like this - denuded. A major project of the US Agency for International Development in 1986 was reforestation of denuded mountain slopes. The US AID person I met with in Port-au-Prince told me the project was doomed to failure because as soon as the trees grew to a desirable height they were cut down and turned into charcoal for cooking meals over open fires
I spent a week in the craziness of Haiti and was hit up endlessly for money but not by prostitutes. Every person in the Haitian government I talked to about permits or permissions or travel authorizations wanted a bribe to make it happen. “You are from Reagan’s government and you have money. We want some of it” was a common refrain. Eventually fed up with the nonsense I called Eastern Airlines and made arrangements to leave the country earlier than planned. During my entire time in Haiti, however, I felt a tension that was palpable throughout the population. I could tell something was up I just wasn’t sure what it was. All I knew was that Haiti was like a time bomb waiting to explode. I just didn’t know when it would blow or where I would be when it happened.
My Eastern Airlines flight to Miami was scheduled to leave Port-au-Prince at 8:00 p.m. but by midnight the plane had not even departed Miami to come pick us up. Haiti Air, the airline of the corrupt Baby Doc Duvalier government, had a flight scheduled to leave at midnight and I changed my reservation to the new airline. As I walked up the steps to board the flight I saw the Haitian military encircling the airport. Machine guns were everywhere and tanks had been deployed and all of the activity made me wonder if that explosion I predicted was coming sooner rather than later.
Haiti Air lifted off about midnight and deposited me in the Miami airport about 2:00 a.m. Checking departure signs in Miami after clearing Customs I noticed that the Eastern Airlines flight to Port-au-Prince had a flashing “cancelled” message next to it. I was very lucky to have changed the flight to Haiti Air or I’d have still been in Port-au-Prince.
It wasn’t until the following morning when I opened up the Miami Herald as I drank my morning coffee that I discovered just how lucky I actually had been. As I was boarding the Haiti Air flight the current dictator of Haiti, the despicable bastard Baby Doc Duvalier and his extremely expensive wife Michelle were hurriedly leaving the Presidential palace and making their way to the airport. There, four hours after I left Haiti, the now-deposed dictator and his wife escaped the clutches of the people and flew to Paris where they sought and received political asylum. Haitians had reached their limit of just how much they were willing to take and rose up against the oppression forcing the dictator to run for his life. As I read the story in the Herald it became abundantly clear why my contact in the American Embassy said “If you’re coming come now or else.” I also understood his comment about the country turning into a war zone and why they might not be able to get me out.
On the heels of Baby Doc’s departure Haiti became that predicted war zone. Anarchy filled the nation and formerly oppressed Haitians took up arms, clubs and anything else that could kill someone and began doing just that. Their main target, from Cap Haitien to Jeremie, was men in blue uniforms that made up the Tontons Macoutes, the former dictator’s death squad. Turn about became fair play.
Fifteen years after that fateful night I was browsing books in a travel bookstore in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC where I started telling travel stories to the woman who managed it. We compared countries visited and finally she said, “I bet you’ve never been to Haiti.”
Saying that I had been she asked me when. For whatever crazy reason after her divorce she moved to Haiti to get the pain out of her system. It turned out that she was as filled up with the Duvalier government as everyone else and decided to move back to the United States. I told her that I was in the country for a week just before Baby Doc’s departure. “I flew out of Port-au-Prince at midnight and Baby Doc left at 4:00 a.m.”
“Were you on the Haiti Air flight?”
“So was I,” she said.
Other than flying over it going to and from somewhere else I was not on the ground in Haiti again until November 2008 when I stopped there on Air France as I traveled to and from Cayenne in French Guiana. That was my only contact with the country until December 4, 2013, when I slipped into the harbor at Labadee aboard the Liberty of the Seas, a gigantic Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ship.
The nearly 1,200 foot long Liberty of the Seas tied off at the pier in Labadee Haiti, December 4 2013
We approached Labadee from the north after a 37 hour cruise from Fort Lauderdale. On arrival in the harbor we were greeted by a large contingent of people on jet ski’s racing around Columbus Cove. After quickly exiting the ship I heard my first Haitian bird of the day – gray kingbird – which happens to be my most favorite West Indies bird.
My first Haitian sunrise since January 1986
Royal Caribbean leases from the Haitian government several hundred acres of the peninsula at Labadee. Most of the land is still forested which is in direct contrast to so much of Haiti. A story I once read said that in 1494 when Columbus first visited Hispaniola the part of the island that is now occupied by Haiti was almost entirely forested. Today the largest contiguous tract of unbroken forest is about 500 acres – less than one square mile. Looking at the mountain side above Labadee it is easy to see that much more than 500 acres of contiguous forest remains. However previous time in the country coupled with numerous trips over Haiti flying to the Dominican Republic and beyond have taught me that the area around Labadee is an anomaly in an otherwise denuded and destroyed Haitian landscape.
We approached Labadee harbor from the north on a beautiful warm and clear Caribbean morning
I recorded 43 species during the day of which 9 species were marine or water birds (red-necked phalarope, brown booby, and parasitic jaeger were seen from the ship while underway either before landing or after departing Labadee). Another 9 species were Hispaniolan endemics. Haiti has its own endemic, the gray-crowned palm-tanager but it is found only on the southern “jaw” of the country from west of Port-au-Prince to Jeremie. After so many trips to the West Indies none of the birds seen were lifers or even new for the West Indies however about 10 species were new for my Haiti list. Best among them was bay-breasted cuckoo which is quite possibly my most favorite Hispaniolan bird species. The one I saw, near the cruise ship dock, was the last land bird species I found during my brief visit. A complete list of birds seen on land and in Haitian waters follows this narrative.
Welcome to Labadee
One of the issues I had harbored for a long time regarding cruise ships and the passengers on them was the belief that people get nothing out of the experience other than another check mark on a list of countries or islands they had “done.” A curmudgeonly hateful and bitter Brit named Eric who was the partial owner of a British pub in Sarasota once told me that he enjoyed cruising because he was able to “hang out with the natives and see how they live.” Unfortunately Eric’s idea of hanging out and seeing how islanders lived was to depart the ship, find the nearest bar, sit there and drink himself into a stupor until it was time to re-board the ship, and then cruise onto the next port where he would repeat the entire process again. Eric’s experiences were another indicator of what I thought cruising was all about. That view, however, changed dramatically once I finally took my first cruise.
Royal Caribbean contractors greeted the ships arrival with an armada of jet ski's on Columbus Cove
The United States, with all of its arrogance, is a very xenophobic and myopic nation. Collectively the United States has a superiority complex that makes even almost everyone else seem subdued. Part of that xenophobia comes from the fact that only 11 percent of the American public has a passport. That’s right. Slightly less than 1 in every 10 people you see have a passport and therefor the ability to explore beyond the borders of the United States. Compare that to the Brits, Dutch, Australians and Canadians who are never home! In the end I would rather have Americans on a cruise ship to a safe and predictable place like Labadee Haiti (which is so unlike the real Haiti it’s shocking) where they might learn at least a little bit about a different way of life or a different culture, than I would having them sitting at home listening to Rush Limbaugh thinking he is a legitimate news source. If being on a cruise ship can open up the eyes of 1 in 20 people on the ship, then it’s a good thing.
"Main Street" in Labadee, Haiti. This is so unlike Haiti its almost indescribable yet 3,000 some guests on the Liberty of the Seas visited here and went away with the impression that Haiti was like this. At least they got themselves out beyond the continental shelf
As we sailed away from Labadee after a much-too-short time there we followed a westerly course between the Haitian mainland the Ile du Tortue. Turtle Island is home to three endemic subspecies of birds (Bananaquit, thick-billed vireo and Greater Antillean bullfinch) which means that I have to figure out a way to get out there to search for them some time soon. Maybe next time I’ll head out there.
The beach at Labadee is incredibly beautiful. Note the heavily forested hill behind it. That is an anomoly. If only all of Haiti remained forested like that hill
Labadee is so unlike the rest of Haiti it is almost indescribable and a ship-load of people there on December 4 2013 thought they had experienced Haiti but they hadn’t. The real Haiti exists on the other side of the gigantic boundary fence (with concertina wire and razor wire at the top) that 99 percent of people will never see. Yet this simple and quick exposure to the country today, no matter how limited, may have opened the eyes of some people so that the next time they hear about the latest earthquake that levels Haiti or the latest hurricane that floods the country or the latest coup d’état that deposes the next corrupt leader at least it will register that they know something about Haiti. That one little bright spot makes cruising there worth the time, energy, and expense.
Ile du Tortue off the north coast of Haiti lies there begging to be explored
Sunset over Haiti's northern peninsula
Bird Species Observed at/near Labadee Haiti December 4, 2013
BOOBIES AND GANNETS
HERONS, EGRETS, AND BITTERNS
Great Blue Heron
SANDPIPERS AND ALLIES
SKUAS AND JAEGERS
GULLS, TERNS, AND SKIMMERS
PIGEONS AND DOVES
Bay-breasted Cuckoo is alone worth the effort to get to Haiti. Image by Caribmotion
When Hispaniolan Woodpecker begins calling there is no doubt about its identification. Image by Paul Bowyer
FALCONS AND CARACARAS
CROWS, JAYS, AND MAGPIES
THRUSHES AND ALLIES
MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS
NEW WORLD WARBLERS
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
TANAGERS AND ALLIES
CARDINALS AND ALLIES
OLD WORLD SPARROWS
WEAVERS AND ALLIES