Haitian Roulette

Haiti even has prices in a currency that doesn’t exist, the ‘Haitian dollar’, dating back to the era when the gourde, the local currency, was fixed at five to the US dollar, five gourdes being a Haitian dollar.  Well, the currency has long since devalued, but the Haitian dollar remains, requiring long division for anything other than market produce, all this in the poorest, most uneducated, country in the hemisphere.  I stayed forty-two hours.  I’m sure Club Med is slick and all, but I almost got caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare.  Coming overland from the Dominican Republic, I queued up at the border to stamp in to Haiti.  The scene was a bit chaotic, and the lady naturally assumed I’d know neither French nor Spanish, since I looked neither black nor tan, so simply asked “Santo Domingo?”  I nodded in the affirmative, since I had just come from there.  She stamped my passport and I got back on the bus.  Half an hour later, I realized she probably meant to ask me if I was going to Santo Domingo.  I opened my passport and sure enough, there’s the exit stamp.  I’m illegal in a country I don’t know with a language I know only poorly.  Uh-oh.

 

Like Moroccans, Haitians like to hire themselves out as ‘guides’ (read ‘guards’) for visiting tourists.  If you can agree on a reasonable price, and the guy seems nice, this is not a bad idea, as it puts the others at bay and ends the silly game right there.  The silly game is more fun with Thai girls, I hear, and why settle for a mere buffer when you can get a bumper?  Anyway, I spent the night up in Port-au-Prince’s upscale suburb Petionville in probably the most expensive room I’d ever stayed at the time, certainly the most in the Third World.  Only $50, but hey, that was a decade ago, I’m frugal, and this is the poorest country in the hemisphere.  The next day I went down to the city and found out why.  There’s no services, no hotels, no restaurants, nothing.  Finally I found a $20 room in a shit-bag, and set off to the old market.  There I met some malcontent intent on accusing me, as an American, of causing half the world’s problems (this was right after UN troops left in 1996 post-Duvalier).  Well, he may have a point, but what can I do?  He followed me up and down the street trying to get others to join in the harangue, but fortunately to no avail.  I tried to lose him, but there he was again.  He even followed me into my hotel, but I had him stopped at the desk.  All fine, but now I’m a prisoner.  What do I do if he’s waiting for me outside the next time I go out?  Fortunately, there’s a restaurant in my hotel, since there were hardly any outside anyway.  I whiled the night away listening to voodoo drumming outside my window, imagining what images might fit those strange exotic sounds.

 

I was not a happy camper.  I was not impressed with what I’d seen of Haiti.  I hadn’t seen another white face; that’s for sure.  In the morning I decided I’d catch the bus back to Santo Domingo.  But first, since the Immigration Office is close by, I’ll go make sure there’s no problem with my passport.  Big mistake.  I walk past the guy at the entrance and he shuttles me over to a side room.  There the nice man asks me if I’d like a Dominican Republic visa, only $200.  But this is not a Dominican consulate, or is it?  But I just came from the Dominican Republic and there’s no visa required for US citizens anyway.  I tried to explain about my passport, but he keeps trying to sell me a visa.  He shows me all the US passports in his drawer.  Where’d he get those?  I insist on my passport back, explaining it’s necessary for me to cash checks, assuring him I’ll be back shortly.  I start to walk out the door I came in, but the nice man there stops me.  “Door number seven,” he says, pointing toward the back.  “No, no, you don’t understand.  I came in to ask a question, and now I’m leaving,” I explain.  “Door number seven,” he insists.  Uh-oh.  I ask the nice lady there if she speaks English.  Spanish, maybe?  “I speak French… and Creole.”  Oh, boy.  She examines my passport, page by page.  Fortunately my passport was only two years old at the time, because I tend to add more pages frequently, and they start looking like telephone books.  Fortunately I had Communist Vietnamese and Lao stamps in there which we both agreed were “tres interesant”, not the average GI Joe anyway, a fact I tried to play up in this fledgling post-Duvalier state.  She let me go, and that I did, kissing the earth and skipping my way past souls prostrate in churches, speaking in tongues, back to my hotel and on to the bus terminal.  There’s only one problem: my passport’s still not right.  That was no problem at the border as they simply gave me the correct stamps, both in and out.  The Dominican guys gave me a little Miami Vice routine, as if I were some amateur drug dealer who’d freak at the slightest interrogation, but that’s all.  On to the beach, older but wiser.