It's practically impossible for Americans to learn much about the country of Haiti without running into the works of Goucher College's creative writing professor and award-winning novelist Madison Smartt Bell.
Along with a dozen or so published pieces, Bell is widely acclaimed for his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy: "All Souls' Rising," "Master of the Crossroads," and "The Stone that the Builder Refused." In the course of researching Haiti for his books, Bell has lived among local residents and international relief workers, circumnavigating coups, civil unrest and heartbreaking hardship.
Born in rural Tennessee, Bell has lived in some dynamic settings: New York and London, and he spent a considerable amount of time in Paris before settling in Baltimore. So it was curious to us that, when asked about his favorite travel destination, he named Cap-Haitien, Haiti.
The poorest country in the Caribbean, Haiti receives most American visitors nowadays as part of relief missions. The cruise ships listing it on their port destinations dock at Labadie, a secluded peninsula near Cap-Haitien that does not allow access to local residents.
Bell readily concedes that "Cap" is not for every type of traveler; its appeal is cultural authenticity, unspoiled beaches and important historical sites, namely the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere. Despite U.S. State Department traveler's warnings for Haiti, we asked Bell to describe his recommended lures for adventurous travelers.
When did you first visit Cap-Haitien, the setting of your trilogy about the Haitian revolution during the colonial period?
I had worked on the project from the early 1980s, but it wasn't until about 1991 that my wife and I got grants to go to Haiti to do field work. At that very moment was the first coup d'etat against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He went into exile, and the flights to Haiti stopped for a while, so I didn't go. I didn't know any way to get in — now I would know how to if I wanted to. I just wrote the first book sitting at home. Then [in 1994 the U.N. Security Council] finally worked out his return, and I came in on their heels, in 1995.
How did you get there?
I flew on an American Airlines flight to Port au Prince. The first couple of times I went to Cap [Haitien], I drove, partly because I wanted to cover different parts of the country. The distance is about 100 miles from Port au Prince to Cap-Haitien, but it can take all day, eight hours-plus, because the roads are so bad. A lot of flat tires. After a while, the ride got too taxing. I discovered that a plane went there directly from Fort Lauderdale.
Why did you focus on Cap-Haitien?
My hero is a man of the north, and during the colonial period, Cap-Haitien was the cultural capital. Port au Prince has always been the seat of government. Cap-Haitien was bigger, sort of like the relationship between New York and D.C.
What is Cap-Haitien like?
The expanse of the colonial town is limited because of the mountains and water. And most of it was still pretty much intact when I first started going there in 1995. The downtown is filled with beautiful French colonial architecture. And it overlooks the water.
There are reports that tourism is returning to Haiti. There is a cruise ship destination not far from Cap-Haitien, but what do you recommend for Americans who want to come for longer than just getting off a cruise ship for a day?
You can go to the citadel; you can go to the beaches. There are some very nice beaches on the little peninsula outside of the town. Labadie: They would open it to Haitians when the ships were not in port, but when the ships were in, they would lock it all up so that [locals] couldn't get in. Haitians like to go there because you can bring in your own food. I don't think there is a restaurant. Nearby there's a very nice [hotel] called Cormier Plage that's run by French people, I think. They have a great restaurant. That's where the [United Nations] higher-ups stay. They have snorkel and scuba.
People on the cruise ships don't get beyond the beach where they dock?
No. I talked with some people years ago about an initiative to open up Labadie beach [the private resort on a secluded peninsula where the cruise liner Royal Caribbean docks] so that people could come across to the town and go to the citadel, which is the eighth wonder of the world. It's a mountaintop fortress that looks like Noah's Ark once you get up there. It's been very nicely restored by the Haitian historical preservation society. The cruise ships used to come into town, there is a cruise ship dock. There's been an effort to start that up again, but I do not know if it has. I tend to think not, because there's continued instability.
What's the food like?
African-European with a little Indian influence. A little more French than you might find elsewhere. They eat a lot of pork. Griot [fried pork with sour orange juice and peppers] is the famous pork dish. Rice and beans is a staple, plantains are a staple. Food is very highly seasoned; they grow scotch bonnet peppers, and use them in sauces. They eat a lot of goat; their goat is great. And they are the only culture in the world that [prepares] this version of conch: They call it lambi (a peppery dish with lime and sour oranges), and it's considered to be a delicacy.
I read that while visiting Haiti, you became proficient in an aspect of Haitian vodou that inspired your writing, as well as a complete immersion into the culture. How were you able to learn about it — isn't it a rather closed ceremony?