I admit that I had mixed feelings about taking Xingxing to Haiti.
Even before the awful earthquake that devastated most of the capital, Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the world. How must the average Haitian feel about passengers on a cruise ship that costs almost as much per day as the average Haitian family earns in a month? I wondered.I’d also read someplace that Haitians don’t like dogs. Apparently, Papa Doc threatened to come back as a dog and tear them to pieces. Suppose someone mistook Xingxing for a reincarnation of Papa Doc and came after us with a machete?
Haitian regulations stipulate that the Veterinary Certificate of Health must have been issued within seven days of arrival. That meant we had to get it in Charleston, and that’s what we did. But I was still very ambivalent. Adventure is one thing, but there is no way I would willingly put Xingxing at risk. I finally decided that when we docked, I’d look the place over from the safety of the ship. And if I didn’t like what I saw, we wouldn’t go ashore.
However, I needn’t have worried. We didn’t get anywhere near the Haiti you read about in the newspapers. We tied up at Labadee, a 260-acre peninsula on the other side of the island from Port Au Prince that is owned (via a 99-year lease) and operated by the cruise company. This peninsula is separated from the rest of the island by a huge fence, which keeps the tourists in and -- except for carefully chosen employees -- the Haitians out. There are cabanas and beaches and pretty walks and a “marketplace” and a trolley to carry you from one end of the peninsula to the other. It is anything but dangerous. But it isn’t exactly Haiti, either.
I did a walking tour. Our guide's name was Lamy. Right off the bat he told us how grateful he was that we’d taken this cruise and were visiting Haiti. For one thing, our visit provided him with a job, and in a country with 80% unemployment, that is significant. Turns out, tourism is a major money-earner for Haiti, worth $100 million per year.
We stood under a neem tree while Lamy rubbed a handful of leaves between his hands. Neem leaves (and berries) cure all sorts of skin disorders, including skin cancer. We walked past the ruins of what had been a tavern for pirates, called Nellie's.Lamy also explained the difference between pirates and bucaneers. Pirates roam the seas. Buccaneers are pirates who have grown old and come ashore and settle down. Bet you didn’t know that. The word buccaneer comes from a Taina Indian word meaning fire smoke. The Taina, Lamy explained, were the original inhabitants of Hispaniola Island. They were gentle and peace-loving, quite unlike the Caribs, who were warlike and bloodthirsty and lived on adjacent islands. (The Caribbean is named for the Caribs) When Columbus ran aground on Hispaniola, the Taina welcomed him. But if he’d happened to land on a Carib island, it would have been another story -- the Caribs would have most likely killed him and eaten him, and Western history would be very different.
We did a coastal boat trip in the afternoon, but there wasn't much to see, although Xingxing seemed to enjoy the smells as we bounced along on a low swell. Other than a lone millionaire's mansion, it's just mountains and vegetation tumbling down to the sea. Apparently, the hills around Port Au Prince (a six hour drive away) have all been denuded, for firewood. But this side of the island is wild, and unspoiled, and uninhabited.
I'd planned to shop in the "marketplace" when we got back at 2 PM, but it was already closed. They're apparently expecting a much bigger ship tomorrow, and I guess they thought we weren't worth the bother.
So did we visit Haiti, or not? You tell me.