Bob Corbett
August 1999

I want to begin with a map of Haiti and make some comments on it. The map that I'm point at is found on   all of the main Haiti pages of my web site.  However, you will need to click on it once you get it up to bring it to full size. If you have two browsers (a wonderful thing to have and they are free) I'd recommend you keep this essay up on one and bring the map up on another, then you can easily click back and forth between them.

Haiti is the most mountainous country of the Caribbean, however it does have three plains which were once quite fertile. It also has four mountain chains. I want to try to give you some idea where the mountain chains are and where the plains are.

Let's start at the top of the map and find the name of the second largest town in Haiti, Cap Haitien. If one were to draw a line straight down to the C of Cap, and then draw the line in a very gradual sloping to the right all the way to the Dominican Republic border (that's the brown land mass on the right), then this line should intersect the border parallel to the word Gonaives on the map.

If you have this small box drawn, then the famous NORTHERN PLAIN is what is above the line to the sea.

We will read more about this plain when reading about the French colonial period since it was the heart of the French plantation system, and where the Haitian Revolution began in 1791.

If you draw rather straight line from the name Cap Haitien to the Dominican border and also from The top of the name Gonaives, what is between there will be the first of the Haitian mountain chains.

Next we will come to the Cul-de-sac, the plain just north of the major city of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. You will note the name HISPANIOLA spans both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. HISPANIOLA is the name of the island. Neither Haiti nor the D.R. (Dominican Republic) is an island. Rather, they are two nations which share (however unhappily) the island of Hispaniola, the D.R. occupying the eastern 2/3 and Haiti the western 1/3.

But, back to the cul-de-sac. Draw an imaginary line across the top of the word Hispaniola to the border. Now do the same starting at the circle with the X. Start by the "E" of name PORT-AU-PRINCE. Draw your imaginary line toward the lake in the D.R. What is in the box is roughly the cul-de-sac, the plain of Port-au-Prince.

Just to the north of the cul-de-sac is the second mountain range, not quite as large as the northern mountains. Just draw an imaginary line from the "c" of St. Marc toward the "H" of Hinche. That's the northern border of the mountains. Notice that along the D.R. border and below Hinche, but above the word "Hispaniola" you will see a sort of < indentation in the border line. From that eastern point, draw the imaginary line toward the "c" of St. Marc. That line would sort of be the southern border of the mountains.

The third mountain range slices south from the northwest corner of Port-au-Prince toward the second sideways V in the border, one that looks like this > just above the one lake pictured in the D.R.

The last major plain is the southern plain. It runs from just west of Port-au-Prince toward Mirogoane and covers most of the land mass. The southern tip of the southern peninsula is mountainous with two sets of mountains, one angling from Les Cayes toward Jeremie. The other runs north and south closer to the western edge of the island.

Next let's consider the towns. Haiti has ONE city, Port-au-Prince which must be about 1 1/2 million of the roughly 7 to 8 million people in Haiti. I'm most hesitant to use numbers. Hard data is very hard to come by in Haiti since there hasn't been any serious real counting of anything and estimates are simply intelligent guesses which have been repeated so often that they are widely believed. I'll come back to Port-au-Prince later. Let me at least mention the other notable places on the map.

Starting at the top of the map we have:

Notice that Hinche is the only town which is not a sea coast town. I mentioned that Port-au-Prince is the only city. The second most populous place is Cap Haitien. It is very small, probably no more than 100,000 to 150,000 if that many. It is a very lovely place. I've visited often. When one comes into town and the bus drives through the arch and stops within two blocks at the open air depot, I often then WALK to the far east end of town (the bus depot is on the western end) and up a very steep hill to the Mont Jolie Hotel. This is a short walk, takes me no more than 15 to 20 minutes and I have traversed the town from the west to east. After a relaxing drink and perhaps some food, I often walk down to the waterfront, the southern border of the town. If I'm staying at Hotel Beck's which I often do, I can walk there, the northern most part of the town, in another 20 minutes, and that's up a very very steep hill.

The whole of the town could be circled on foot in less than an hour.

Cap Haitien is very pretty. I love the way the doors are painted such bright colors on most of the old wooden houses, many with iron balconies on the second floor overlooking the narrow streets below. Right in the town's center is a large outdoor market where I go to buy fruit, nuts and vegetables to munch on. There are lots of cashews in Cap Haitien and I just feast on them. Add a great juicy "chadack" (grapefruit) for the liquid and what a treat.

Just a couple of blocks from the market is the Roman Catholic Cathedral, an historic old building.

Toward the eastern end of town, just below Mont Jolie, is my favorite hotel in Okap (as Cap Haitien is often called). This is Roi Christophe. It is a very old wooden hotel which was once a city administration building. I've stayed there a few times and simply loved it with it's great views from the balconies that some of the nice second floor rooms have, and enjoying the garden on the side near the swimming pool.

Quite near Cap Haitien, just about 45 minutes by public bus (called a taptap) is the village of Milot which is the site of two of Haiti's most famous attractions. Down at the end of the village is the ruins of the palace of King Henry (2nd ruler of Haiti). A very long, hard and hot trip high, high up on the mountain (also can be made by donkey, but it is, for me, much more comfortable to walk) is the gigantic fortress The Citadel. This is the largest European-style fortress in the Caribbean. If one gets to the Okap region, it would be a shame not to visit the incredible monument.

Just a few quick comments about the other towns. Almost nothing about Port-de-Pais, the only one of the group where I've not visited. It is a sea coast town and just across the 10 mile straight from the Isle de Tortue (Turtle Island) on the north coast.

Hinche is a place I love. If you look at the mileage gauge at the bottom you'll note it is only about 60 miles from Port-au-Prince. I've been to Hinche many, many times and it is a grueling trip. I mainly ride public transportation. Since the roads to Hinche cross a major mountain chain and are nearly all unpaved, it's a tough and at times dangerous trip. The public buses are simply jammed, people sitting actually on top of one another in open pick up trucks or huge big trucks with no seats called "camion bwat" (box trucks). One can sit on the wooden railing, but my rump just seems so large for that 6 inch board, and I'm always worried about falling off. It is hot and brutal trip of about 6 hours or more.

However, I've also traveled in private vehicles. This is much more comfortable, but it is still a four or five hour trip of eating dust, getting flat tires and dodging pot holes that could swallow a car. I enjoy the back road trip from Cap Haitien to Hinche the best. I remember making that trip one late night standing in the back of a pick-up trip on Christmas Eve. We got to Hinche just after midnight and began the hour's walk out to Pandiassou in the pitch dark. The religious community at Hinche was having a midnight mass which went until nearly 2 AM and thus was just letting out when I walked over the small knoll in the road. I was at least 100 yards or more away from the church when one of the nuns sang out: "It's Bob Corbett." They had no idea in the world I was coming -- I had started out early on my way west from Cap Haitien, but in an adventuresome day, ended up in Hinche at midnight! I think these people see in the dark.

Hinche is a dusty cowboy town. It reminds me of a thousand tiny hamlets I've seen in western movies all my life. Except all the cowboys are black! Lots of people riding horses and mules and donkeys. Few, if any paved streets, those sort of boardwalk like wooden walks in front of many shops. The key difference between Hinche and the old cowboy movies is the huge open market in the center of town and the soccer field right behind it! Before my knees gave out I played in some might rough soccer matches in that pitch as the community from Pandiassou would challenge a team from Hinche.

Saint-Marc, however, is the ultimate cow town. Very small, on the sea, under a large hill if not a mountain, with a fortress ruins to hike up to. Just south of it is the much large Gonaives. I must admit I've never had much love of either town. I find them dusty, hot, shadeless and rather uninteresting. I'm sure this is more related to my limited experience than the reality of the places. But, for me, they are mainly stop off places for a drink on the tough trip from Cap Haitien back to Port-au-Prince.

To the south of Port-au-Price are two of the gems of Haiti. Hard south is Jacmel, a magical town on the Caribbean. It is an art center, and while very small, is hilly, cute, shady and the home of a simply marvelous hotel, The Jacmillian. I stayed there one New Year's Eve and had a room on the second floor with a huge wooden balcony overlooking the Caribbean. Since it was New Year's Eve there was a huge party, live music, great food and an awesome experience for me.

Farther down the coast to the west is the flat and elegant town of Les Cayes. The streets are wide, it seems cleaner than the other town and seems less populated. I think this is more a factor of the wide streets and larger more spread out spaces which gives it this sense of space population.

Many people talk of the quaint and even British village of Jeremie. Oh my, I must confess, I am no fan of Jeremie. But then I only had one trip there, I didn't give it a serious chance. However, my memories are such that I'm highly unlikely to give it a second try. I had gone there to see Bishop Willy Romulus, a leading political figure in the more progress political movements. That was a joy. He was a very gracious, intelligent man, an inspiration and a wealth of information. But Jeremie just didn't grab me. The city park was cute and even reminded me of the center of Cap Haitien. The other main street was delightful. But the city seemed so empty. There was one major street, a hill heading up from the park area, that was lined with hotels. They were all virtually empty. We stayed large fancy looking hotel in which we were the only guests. Food was a difficulty.

I guess it was hard times. I can't recall the year, but it may well have been during the period the de facto government, perhaps 1993 or 1994, but not during the American Occupation (more about all that later).

It had been a very hard trip getting there by pubic bus from Les Cayes. That's a trip over very high mountains, where the bus, on the tiny dirt roads, seems about to plunge into the abyss every few minutes. When it was time to leave we decided it would be better to take the ferry back to Port-au-Prince. That would have been a mistake! Fortunately we avoided it. We boarded the ferry and the deck was already packed. I asked it there were any seats to purchase and was told I was in luck, we could even have a stateroom. I mean, what kind of dummy am I anyway. This is Haiti. But, I said oh my, show us. We were led into a tiny room with three sets of double beds. They were bare save thin mattresses. It was clear that the main purpose of the beds had been to store charcoal. The mattresses were covered in charcoal dust. Then we saw them: the walls were simply crawling with cockroaches. Huge, creepy, by the dozens. We were back on the quay within minutes. So, we road on top of a bus on the midnight run to avoid the heat and hope to sleep through the trip. That turned out not to work since we were jammed on the roof like sardines in a can.

Back home in St. Louis about a month later I read that the ferry from Jeremie had sunk and nearly 2,000 people died. Ironically, most of these people who live on the sea couldn't swim.

The last item I want to raise in this short basic overview is the political geography of Haiti.

The nation is divided into 9 national districts, the equivalent of states in the United States. The districts are called DEPARTMENS. The nine are:

  1. The Northwest.
  2. The North
  3. The Northeast
  4. The Artibonite.
  5. The Central (This include the Central Plateau and center of the country north of Port-au-Prince.)
  6. The East. A curiously named department since it is actually the very center of the country. The East department includes Port-au-Prince, which is only half jokingly called by many The Republic of Port-au-Prince.
  7. The Southeast
  8. The Grand Anse. (This is the entire northern half of the southern peninsula.)
  9. The South West. (This is the southern half of the southern peninsula.)

There is a curious notion of a 10th department. In very recent times there has been a major political upheaval. This comes to focus after February 7, 1986 when President Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown, ending the Duvalier family 29 year dictatorship. Since that time, 13 years now, the country has been in political turmoil as a struggle for power has emerged. There has been an increase of political violence and political killings, so a significant number of people, perhaps as many as a million Haitians, have felt the need to flee the country taking refuge mainly in the United States, Canada and France. Many of these people were and remain politically active, and many were supporters of reform president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since these were often professionals, intellectuals and politically active people, Aristide and others like him wanted these Haitians living abroad to be politically active, and many of the refugees themselves wanted this. Thus an informal political group arose among the Haitians living abroad referred to as "The Tenth Department." The 10th department has no legal status or representation in national government, nor can Haitians living abroad vote in Haitian elections. Nonetheless, members of the 10th department often remain very active in Haitian politics and there is constant political pressure to give the 10th department some sort of legal status.


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