Tracing Langston Hughes' path in Haiti


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CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti -- There I was, riding in the rear of the tap-tap, this Caribbean country's colorfully painted version of a jitney. It's a small truck with the back cabin gutted out and fused with benches. You tap when you want to board, and you tap-tap when you want to get off. It's cramped and bumpy as we (I am traveling with six other journalists) speed down the asphalt road and the dust blows in my face. I don't care. I am on my way to the nearby Citadelle LaFerrierre, the largest fortress in the Americas.

If you go

Haiti:

The most weather-friendly months to travel to Haiti are January, February and March. It's a break from Pittsburgh's harsh winter and not too hot in Haiti.

I traveled to Port-au-Prince on American Airlines, taking a flight from Pittsburgh to Miami. After a 41/2 hour layover, the flight to Haiti takes about two hours. My ticket was $600 round trip. There are direct flights from New York City. Once in Port-au-Prince, Tortug' Air (tortugair.com), with small commuter planes that sit about 20 passengers, has several flights a day into Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. Our tickets were $80 each way, but we booked them two days ahead; they'd probably be cheaper if booked further in advance. We departed at 8 a.m. and caught the last flight out at 3 p.m. It's a half-hour flight.

At the Citadelle:

Entrance to the park is $5; it cost $12 round-trip on horseback (after listening to my guides' stories of woe, I gave each a $10 tip); it was $10 for the motorcycle ride, and our group gave Chevrolire, our tour guide, $30. The horsemen and cyclist will wait while you finish the tour. It is best to arrange payment with the docent, but I found it is then helpful to pay each person directly.

A caution: Even with transportation by motorcycle and horse, getting to the Citadelle is a rigorous trip and could be difficult for those with mobility or other health issues.

 

The black American poet Langston Hughes had come here in the late spring of 1932, where he reveled in communing with the "people without shoes." If he could survive three weeks of torrential rains, a washed-out road and a cold night sleeping on the ground to make the trek up, I could endure 12 miles of breathing in dust.

It would be worth it -- adding another pin-point in my informal pilgrimage of traveling the globe in the footsteps of the poet. So far, I've been to Tokyo, Dakar, Cleveland, Harlem and, closer to home -- McKeesport, where his mother and stepfather once lived and where a youthful Hughes once brought them back a monkey from The Congo.

Now, I was in Haiti. I had ventured through the teeming Port-au-Prince capital city, where Hughes had once wandered to the grand Champs de Mars and saw the U.S. Marines enforce the American occupation and encountered the cultured elite dancing in suits and ties in the sun. He wanted no part of it. He'd rather spend his time getting to know the barefooted Haitian.

This decision fueled his desire to journey to the more remote Cap-Haitien, the valley of the Citadelle on the northern coast of Haiti. Now, my moment had come, too. It was time to figure out how to transcend the mountain and get to this treasured place, recognized as a cultural jewel and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It's as impressive as the pyramids of Giza and the Acropolis of Athens.

It is worth the climb.

When the Citadelle first comes into view, it takes away your breath. It is a handsome, imposing brick and mortar fortress that reigns high atop a green throne of a mountain, with the blue sky its crown. It's a revered and majestic symbol: representing freedom and independence and honoring the slave revolt that chased away Napoleon and made Haiti the Western Hemisphere's first free black nation in 1804.

It's not easy to get to the Citadelle. You can walk, although it's so steep at some points it's like crawling up a ladder. To do so, you have to ascend a vertical twisting 5.5-mile climb, rising some 3,000 feet above sea level. And, remember, you're walking in tropical heat. To get halfway up the mountain, I ride on the back of a motorbike. For the final 2 miles, I do what Hughes did: I take a horse. My attendants -- three chatty locals -- Jimmy, 17; Gabe, 24; and Falo, 18 -- steady me as we go.

I see what Hughes saw: blue ocean and rolling emerald hills; hidden communities of small huts and thatched villages; white clouds and people midnight black. Children naked as nature.

The effusive Chevrolire Jean is our docent. He has sort of imposed himself on our group. He spotted our tap-tap -- and the array of cameras and iPhones aiming out the open back -- as we neared the gateway that leads onto grounds of the Citadelle. He jumped on board, flashing his ID badge. "It's OK. It's OK," he said, as we looked ready to shove him off. "I am official."

Our interpreter confirms he seemed legitimate. Chevrolire is helpful. He arranges for the entry fee, the motorcycle ride and horseback journey. And, whether we want him to or not, he drops tidbits of history.

Even in its crumbling decline, the fortress is awe-inspiring. It covers 108,000 square feet, about the same area of the field at PNC Park. The walls are 130 feet high and 10 feet thick. The rocks and stones that make up the foundation seem to have been Legoed into the mountain itself.

Even more amazing is that it took 200,000 men to build the fortress, much of it by hand. They walked the rocks up the mountain and once there, Chevrolire said, the Haitians used a mix of "quicklime, molasses, blood of cows and goats, and cow hooves cooked into a gelatin or glue to hold everything in place." There are 365 cannons at the fort. Some of them weigh 2 tons. How did they get those up the mountain? Tiny pyramids of rusted cannonballs rest near groupings of cannons.

The Citadelle, with its mammoth stone doorways, voodoo chambers and dungeons, is "lusty" -- as Hughes called it.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the principal leader of the Haitian revolution who is known as the founding father of Haiti, appointed one of his generals, Henry Christophe, to begin constructing the Citadelle fortress in 1804. When Dessalines was killed two years later in a revolt, the country was divided into north and south states, with Christophe proclaiming himself the King of the North. The Citadelle was completed in 1820.

As breathtaking as the views of the Atlantic Ocean are from the top of the Citadelle, Christophe wanted to go higher. To protect Haiti from intruders, he wanted it to rise another 13 stories to see all the way to Port-au-Prince, roughly 80 miles to the south.

Christophe loved the Citadelle, Chevrolire said. He killed himself at 57 in October 1820, and his body is said to be buried at the Citadelle.

As I stand on a rampart, sky and rolling mountains greet me. It's like touching heaven; sacred. So it's sad to hear the rumors (and see the non-Haitian workers): that the country is renovating some quarters of the Citadelle, spinning them into hotel rooms and dining spaces to bring more elite in and have them board for the night.

What would Langston Hughes say?

 

 


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