Close Encounters of the Presidential Kind

Since it became an independent nation, Haiti has been blessed, er, I mean cursed with a never ending string of megalomaniacs who saw the country as their’s to plunder. I’m not saying this continues to happen today. But I’m also not saying it doesn’t. For those who can’t wade through my cryptic wordplay, it does. It still happens.

We visited a place called Le Citadelle on our last day in Haiti. The story surrounding the structures varied depending on the teller. But most of what we heard prior to going painted the Citadelle as a symbol of national pride and solidarity, a means to defend the Haiti against a naval attack by the French. When we got there, it becamerapidly apparent that this was not the case. The ocean was miles away. And what we thought was a strategically placed military establishment was actually an extravagant fort built solely to protect one of eight mansions owned by northern Haiti’s earliest leader. It took 20,000 people 15 years or so to complete the project. Many of them died to satisfy the ego of one of Haiti’s first executive exploiters.

This became more significant when, near that place, we were almost killed by Haiti’s current president:

No wait, that can’t be him. Sorry. This is the president:

You know what? Same guy. The president of Haiti used to be a hip hop star named Sweet Micky. His stage show involved him dressing in drag and then singing some of his greatest hits. I’m glad Haitians are so tolerant of other-than-typical behaviors. But the only reason I mention his past is to shed light on the present. The sensibilities of a hip hop star are slightly different than those of a president of one of the poorest nations on the planet. For example, when cholera was at its height and Haiti was in acute need of solid leadership, the president was on vacation. He vaguely reminds me of one of our presidents, though the name escapes me at the moment. I think it rhymes with smush.

The trip up to Le Citadelle is treacherous in and of itself. It’s a 5+ mile ride on the back of a motorcycle up a hill paved with cobblestones by the French back in like the 1700s. The road is narrow. Two or three shoulder widths in most places. And it’s full of  blind corners and pedestrians. It is lined on one side by Haitian villagers and on the other side by a sheer drop usually in the range of 100’s of feet down. And the ride is rough. No bobblehead on earth could survive intact. I’m still excreting pieces of my kidneys. All of that is followed by a mile or two hike up the remainder of the hill to reach this:

Big, huh? They built it before cement existed. Apparently it’s the biggest fort in the Americas. And the least strategically relevant for any military operation that could ever need to happen in Haiti. So you know… worth it.

After the kidney shattering bike ride and the hike, we got to the Citadelle to find the national police blocking our exploration. The president was on his way. Security and what not. But then they had a change of heart and let us go in with the stern warning to be cognizant of time. So we did. And we saw 365 French cannons, again, all existing in this place for no reason beyond that of protecting a big ass house.

And then we left.

We made the hike down and got on motorcycle taxis for the treacherous ride down. It’s not an organized caravan down to the bottom. The drivers are independent and have an every-man-for-himself philosophy about getting to a destination. So after we had all sufficiently split up, I tried to Zen my way past the feeling of my insides shattering. My Zen was interrupted as we flew around a blind turn and were greeted by a black Land Rover with police lights and an alarming rate of speed. The driver skillfully pulled over to the side of the road. The side with the cliff. And we waited. Apprehensively.

Another Land Rover followed shortly after with the same disregard for, well, everything. And after that were half a dozen or so dune buggies carrying 4 people each, driving shittier than the Land Rovers. As the driver and I sat perched on the edge of a cliff, watching the parade, I wondered if this is how I was going to die. I had imagined some pretty elaborate scenarios as a kid, bear fight, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom bridge collapse/crocodile food incident, getting sucked into the engine of a commercial airliner, death by super attractive sucubus, but I never thought I would get knocked off a cliff in Haiti by a Barney purple Dune Buggy on a cobblestone road that predated the Declaration of Independence.

As I mused at this new development, The first dune buggy came skidding around the corner. Skidding as in the tires were loose and the vehicle was headed straight for us. Slow motion kicked in, so I had time to pray to the gods of friction that they amp up their forces and the gods of kinetic energy for the exact opposite. I also had time to look at each individual face in the dune buggy. As I made mental notes of each of their features, and their uncharacteristic-for-Haiti levels of affluence I fixed my eyes on the head connected to the body of the man in the driver’s seat. It was Sweet Micky himself. Out for a joyride.

I would say the bumper of his deathmobile came within 24 inches of us. And I don’t remember him acknowledging this in any way. Or slowing down. Or driving any less like a giant, powerful, asshole as he made the next turn. After all the dune buggies had cleared, we waited, perhaps by instinct or perhaps due to having been frozen in fear. I marveled at how I almost met my end at the hands of a flamboyant cross dresser. The waiting/remaining frozen in fear turned out to be a good choice because there were two more Land Rovers in the back who were driving as if they needed to catch up.

We made our way down the rest of the mountain. It took about 10 minutes for our entire team to regroup. And that was 10 minutes that felt like 200. Then, sobered by our collective experience, we made the trip back to Ranquitte.

In Ranquitte we got the news. One of the dune buggies had crashed killing half a dozen people and injuring a dozen including a 3 month old baby. The next day, at the airport, we checked the paper. They saw fit to report the presidential blunder in a small corner of the paper, only after reporting several other innocuous traffic accidents throughout the country. It’s almost as if they were instructed to downplay the incident, which they skillfully did.

We asked some of the translators why the Haitian people would stand for this. They had a simple, logical answer that never occurred to us. Most Haitians can’t read. And the ones who can don’t often have the opportunity. This incident would be buried like thousands of others like it through history. It would be buried and forgotten. Same as those six people who were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time on a Thursday afternoon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *