Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know Neil and I went to Haiti over the holidays. It’s the first Christmas we have not spent in Nérac since we bought the house in 2014 – for the first couple of years there was always work to be done/ furniture to be built etc… but finally everything (including our tiny owner’s studio) is complete so there was no immediate “need” to be there last year (although I do love Christmas in France!).
2018 was quite a year in a lot of ways and part-way through I decided that we both needed to do something completely different for the holidays. Haiti has been on both our bucket lists for a number of years – Neil’s since forever and mine since I started teaching a unit to my Grade 6s in 2010 all about Haiti in support of a letter-writing project to a school for underprivileged kids in Port-au-Prince.
Given we only had 12 days, we needed to figure out how to maximise that time. Neither of us wanted to spend the time in just one place so, based on my knowledge of the country and what I wanted to see (from the excellent José Andrés documentary on PBS, Undiscovered Haiti), we chose to explore Port-au Prince, Jacmel and Cap Haitien. Haiti isn’t the biggest country but travelling isn’t necessarily the simplest for tourists so….how to best go about that?
Consulting with a colleague who lived in Port-au-Prince for a year and working my way through the very limited online information and the only (not very up to date) guidebook available currently, we quickly realised that the only way to do all those places in 12 days was to drive.
Um, ok. Most people who visit Haiti (even some expats who live there) don’t typically drive themselves. My contact for the school who visits multiple times a year and has done for years has never driven. It isn’t really done by most people. How did Neil, the driver in the family, feel about that? Neil’s pretty much game for anything and is a confident driver wherever he drives (he can drive with the best of ’em in Rome and Paris!) so it wasn’t so much a question of if he going to do this but what was the car rental situation like there?
Turns out, it’s just like renting a car anywhere else in the world – you can do this online (AVIS seems to be the company with the most cars to rent) although be aware that when you arrive with your rental documents all printed out, your car may well be ready but you’ll spend well over an hour in the office at the airport filling out the exact same information you’ve already filled out online and you’ll wait while they phone in the credit card number (and do a deposit on the card using one of the old-fashioned card machines (yup, the manual ones!). So basically you’re on island time as soon as you arrive! Things move slower (and it’s not a bad thing!).
And, after ages in the airport renting the car, off we went. Yup, just like that we were on the road for 12 days of adventure! I’m going to let Neil weigh in on the comments below but from my perspective, this was absolutely the best way we could have seen the country FOR US, hands down.
What type of rental car did you you have? What kind of shape was it in? We chose an “economy SUV” and were given a Daihatsu Terios 4×4. The host of one of the places we stayed suggests this vehicle because it has high clearance to go over speed bumps (and other potholes!). While it’s definitely not a luxury vehicle, it got the job done. We were happy with our little guy! He had a few dents and scratches, sure, but he did a good job on the roads!
What are the roads like? Well, the roads range from dirt roads to paved, with the majority falling somewhere in-between. There are, as you’d imagine, a lot of potholes.
Was it a bit frustrating sometimes? Yup. The sheer amount of traffic makes even the shortest trip take much longer than you imagine it will.
Was it scary? Answering as a passenger who doesn’t like hairpin bends, the road to Jacmel was a little hair-raising for me! We drove through rivers and up the tiniest hill roads too which tested my nerves but every time we made it! I don’t know Neil ever felt unsafe but see below for tips on how to handle the roads…
Are you glad you did it? 100% We saw SO much because we were driving. Ok, we saw a lot more than we expected sometimes (because we took a few wrong turns LOL) but I feel like we had the ultimate immersion experience!
Would you recommend it? For us? Yes. But driving in Haiti isn’t for everyone (hey, driving in foreign countries isn’t for everyone!). If you want the experience without the responsibility, it seems easy enough to organise a driver (most hotels will be able to help you out with this) and for the longer haul trips, there are even coach-type buses. So while it was the best way for us, it’s not the only way and it’s definitely not the best way for everyone.
How was Haiti? I’ll address this more in upcoming posts but I loved our time in Haiti. Sure, I had a couple of meltdowns where the interminable traffic, everything taking way longer than expected and negotiating things like tips (I’m the WORST at this everywhere I go!) just got to me but if you learn to go with the flow (something I’m working on in all aspects of my life!), it can be a wonderful experience.
Ours was definitely not your relaxing beach vacation (though there are so many options for that type of holiday there, it’s just not what we chose to focus on this time) and so eye-opening (Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere) but the people are friendly and welcoming and, despite everything (and there being so much need and so much work to be done), there’s a lot of joy there. A vacation that has me thinking, even a month or so later… I feel like 12 days was just a “warm up” and I need to go back now I know how it all works! More on this soon!
What we learned driving in Haiti
1. You’ll need a navigator!
Driving in Haiti, at least for non-locals is a two person job. Being unfamiliar with the roads meant that Neil had to focus all his attention on the actual business of driving. When we drive in places we know, I tend to read/ work/ waste time on social media if I’m the passenger. Not in Haiti. I, too was “on” every time we got in the car. I was navigating, looking out for potholes/ speed bumps/ cars/ people/ tap taps/ motorbikes/ goats/ chickens/ objects falling from the top of pickups, providing navigation advice and water/ snacks. There was no rest for the passenger. But far from being “work”, I had a blast. The few times we took an official taxi in Port-au-Prince or used a driver (in Cap Haitien), the cars had tinted windows so you couldn’t see as much as when we were in our 4×4. I’d say I definitely got the better end of the deal as I saw more than just the traffic and was able to take it in – by driving ourselves, we saw way more than had we used driver (hello being lost multiple times!).
2. Google Maps is your friend.
One of the very first things we did on arriving in Haiti was to get a local SIM card. Super cheap for loads of data (make sure you ask if calls/ texts are included in your deal if you think you’ll need that), SIM cards can be purchased at Port-au-Prince airport on arrival or else at any stand on the street bearing a “Digicel” or “Natcom” logo (or in an actual office of one of these companies). More than any other app on my phone for the 12 days we were away, I used Google Maps, MANY times a day. It’s surprisingly accurate (even down to some tiny streets although sometimes it doesn’t show you just HOW small they are LOL!) and yes, it DOES show the traffic jams (there may not be another way to go but at least you’ll be aware of the delay factor!). Before you get to Haiti, download the offline Port-au-Prince map so that if you don’t get a SIM card at the airport, you’ll at least be able to navigate your way out of the airport NOTE: try to make sure you know the different routes to where you are going if you’re renting a car at the airport because otherwise you might end up on a *smaller* road right out of the airport. Like this one:
3. Patience is a virtue.
You’re not going anywhere fast, sometimes (ok, a lot of the time). There’s no point being impatient. You’ll get to where you’re going eventually. In the meantime, you’re in prime position to soak it all in. There’s no better way to fully appreciate your surroundings than to drive/ navigate through them!
3. Learn to use your horn!
It’s true – Haitians communicate on the road by beeping at each other. Depending on the situation, it can mean “I’m here ” (useful when you’re driving to Jacmel and the road is full of hairpin bends) or “Thanks”. Don’t freak out when people are beeping at you – unlike here in Canada where that would be a signal they’re cross with you, Haitians are merely communicating. And it works!
4. Be assertive, not aggressive.
One of the first things we noticed was that crazy though the traffic is, people aren’t aggressive in an angry sort of manner. They ARE assertive and you will have to be as well otherwise you’ll never get anywhere. Obviously safety and caution are a priority but if you need to make a turn and you can’t see a break in the traffic, sneak your nose out, use your eyes, ears and horn and you should be ok! Basically, drive like you know what you’re doing! If you’re in a rental car you will also have a million stickers (ok, maybe 6) plastered all over your car showing you’re driving a rental so locals might have been a bit more forgiving of any of our missteps! In any case, noone got mad with us for not knowing what we were doing and, in fact, we found people very helpful in terms of letting us know if it was ok to pass large vehicles and trucks etc…
5. Stock up on snacks and water
If you’re like us, you’ll totally underestimate the amount of time it will take you to get anywhere and forget to take into account the massive traffic jams that can sometimes just happen (read: literally sitting in the car for an hour and going nowhere). If you’re like us, you’ll get grumpy if you’re stuck going nowhere and are hungry. We kept nuts, granola bars, sweets and cookies in the car and more than once were glad we did! We also picked up a 12 pack of litre water bottles on our first day. Apart from drinking the water, I often wondered as our little car laboured up a hilly route, if we might need water if the car overheated. We didn’t but it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Have YOU driven in a foreign country? If so, where and how was your experience?
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