Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tourism as Economic Aid, or Why I Went to Basin Bleu

Economic aid comes in various forms. After a disaster, medical supplies and shipments of food might be needed. Soon the aid needs change into business grants and money for infrastructure improvements. But there is another another way to infuse outside capital into a poor nation: tourism. Money spent at hotels, local artisans' booths, restaurants, and tourist destinations provide a direct injection of cash to a local economy, in a way that provides dignity to the locals.

I know Haiti is probably the last place you would think of visiting for a vacation. First, it might seem criminal to enjoy a few days on a Caribbean beach in the face of the poverty around you. Second, you might think this place (the wild, wild West Indies) is a lawless place with wild hordes of people just waiting to rob you, steal from you, and/or physically attack you.

If you like five-star, all inclusive, super luxurious hotels with Michelin star restaurants, and high price tags, then you need to go some place else.

If you like to travel off the beaten path, eat local exotic fare, and experience breathtaking views and adventure, Haiti is for you. If you like to walk on the wild side, and you prefer to do that on very little money, then Haiti is the place for you.
Allow me to provide a pictorial essay as evidence that there are some amazing places to visit here.
Daniel grew up as an MK in Haiti. He came back for a month after the earthquake because he thought that his nursing skills and fluent Creole would be a tremendous help. He was right. Daniel was instrumental in coordinating patient transfers with the hospitals in Port-au-Prince. To say that he saved lives is not an understatement. We became fast friends and a few weeks ago he was back in Haiti to show his childhood home to his new wife, Jenna. We traveled with Daniel and Jenna to Jacmel, a very artsy town on Haiti's southern coast.

The views when we started to climb up the mountainside switch backs were amazing. We left behind dusty, trashy Port-au-Prince and went into lush green mountains, full of fruit trees and  dotted with little shacks. Katie kept repeating,"it looks just like Hawaii."
We stayed at the Hotel Cyvadier, a well-traveled hang out for missionaries looking for a break, and aid workers who want a decent dinner on the weekends. Their pizza special on Fridays really is special- not quite Campisi's, but close.

The hotel, like the mountain drive, is lush. Green. Tall palms shade their courtyard and the tropical-hued paint is only slightly faded. When I honeymooned in Mexico, everything looked brand new and shiny, but it had little local character. We arrived in Jacmel night, and I could hear but not see the boutique hotel's most remarkable feature, the cove.
Hotel Cyvadier sits at the end of a cove. Their beach is a small but private, protected on three sides by cliffs and rocks. It was breathtaking. The constant roar of waves crashing into rocks and emerald blue water was spectacular. When the four of us went to the beach on Saturday morning, we were the only people there.
It was a great place.The service was sharp, the rooms were clean, and in fact the bathroom was nicer than my apartment in Port-au-Prince. I understand that the best Haiti can sometimes offer would score only 3 stars in the states, but you gladly exchange that for the scenery which robs you of words.

The main attraction for Daniel and I was a series of mountain waterfalls called Basin Bleu. We set out after lunch. Remember, Haiti is a travel destination for people who like getting off the beaten path... well... lets get our feet wet.
To get from Jacmel to Basin Bleu you have to ford the river. Like in Oregon Trail. Luckily we did not tip over, and no oxen died. A moto driver (seen above) charged the equivalent of $1.50 to show us the way across the river. We then started a climb into the mountains. 

At this point in the trip,  scenic views from one mountain across a fertile green valley to another  mountain were becoming commonplace.

We worked our way back and forth on unpaved switchbacks until we pulled up to a small concrete building. The Haitian government has exerted more control over Basin Bleu in the last few years. We filled out some forms for the Ministry of Tourism, Pancakes and Rainbows, paid $2.50 each, then Daniel haggled with the roughly dozen tour guides who wanted to lead us to the falls.  

The trail to the falls had been covered with local rocks to form a fairly smooth path. The area was pristine. In Port-au-Prince, there is a lot of trash on the streets. For litter-conscious Westerners it can be a shock. On this trail I saw one piece of litter. And our guide picked it up! This was when I knew I was in a different world. In Port, no one picks up litter unless they have been paid to do so. We hiked past the first waterfall and pool, but kept going. This was small potatoes. We wanted the highest ones, rumored to be so deep that on one knows exactly how deep they are.
We reached a rock and our guide tied a rope to a tree. We slipped off our shoes and anything else we did not want to get wet and using the rope climbed down a moss slicked rock. Then we splashed into the cold water. After the drive and the hike in the humid, tropical air we were sweat-soaked and the cold springwater felt delightful. In the middle of the highest basin is a large rock that makes a perfect platform for picture taking and cannon balls.
Our guide swam out the highest waterfall and climbed up it about 30 feet, waved to get our attention, then executed an Olympic-perfect swan dive. He surfaced and waved to us. Then we each swam out to the falls and jumped in. I have an extreme fear of heights. I hate climbing on anything taller than a chair. So after I swam up to just the first rock ledge, I climbed up and jumped in. 
For some reason I looked like a big, white chicken when I dove in (above). Daniel, who does not have a (completely rational) muscle-freezing fear of heights, climbed up as high as possible and then dove in. He did not look like a big, white chicken (below).
We both climbed back on the big rock and just basked in the sheer awesomeness of the place we were in; slick moss covered rocks, deep blue water, unspoiled serenity, the kind of natural beauty that people seek out from the Grand Canyon and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Amazon. We had not seen another person since we left the parking lot. The basin and it's falls seemed like they were our own personal pool. Discovered by us, known only to us. If we had brought a few cold Prestiges for that exact moment, the trip would have been sublime.

We dried off, and hiked back to our car, tipping our guide 15 bucks for the trip. Our guide was a mason during the week. He had just made 3x the minimum wage for swimming with two goofy guys for an hour. We arrived back at our hotel after dark and then joined our wives for a seafood dinner: fresh caught fish and lobster grilled and conch cooked in coconut milk and curry. This time with the cold Prestige.

The whole weekend I saw a part of Haiti that I had heard people talk about but rarely seen. The north and south coasts of Haiti hold rich natural and historical treasures that are hardly explored. They are remote, off the beaten path and probably won't show up on a Travel Channel special or American Way Magazine, but they are exquisite. 

Many development and aid watch groups have criticized the lack of dollars actually being spent to improve people's lives here, and Haiti needs so much that I do not think tourists' money is the only answer. However, I do know that jobs are in short supply, and working at a hotel or a natural tourist destination sure beats most other options in this country. Haiti is often portrayed as a very poor place with dangerous, desperate people, but that is sorely incomplete. 

And if you like cliff diving without a lifeguard, and being the only one on a gorgeous natural cove, then you should seriously consider coming here.

Ben


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