This complex has been a tourist attraction for a long time. In 1937, The New York Times announced a new steamship service that would make the Citadel more accessible. “The main offering of the new tourist service is the chance of visiting the famous citadel, La Ferriere, sometimes rated among the ten wonders of the world.”
My tour guide was Nicolas Antoine, a 62-year-old who has been showing people around the complex for 25 years. When he began, Antoine said, the Citadel was in poor shape, abandoned, with trees growing on and inside its walls. The task of ferrying up tourists was given to sure-footed donkeys climbing through scrub. His description reminded me of the current condition of Fort Anglais on the southern coast, another impressive site in a country filled with them.
The complex was truly spectacular, a testament to Haiti’s world-changing struggle for independence. When we arrived, it was late morning, blindingly hot and humid. I stepped across a crumbling wall of Sans Souci Palace into a field of tall grass. Chattering from the village of Milot below rose through the air. Facing me, on the other side of the village, was a steep mountain slope covered with rubber, mahogany, mango and palm trees. I greedily drank in the view. Haiti’s struggle with deforestation is well known, making these types of unadulterated visions of nature all the more precious.
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Turning in the other direction, I noticed a young man sitting nearby, intently staring at a piece of paper, his lips moving as if in prayer. I asked him what he was doing. He was studying for an economics test. In the distance stood a large school building, and I heard the chant of students repeating lessons.
This moment occupied my thoughts on the climb up to the Citadel and while walking through the fortress’s cool, mist-wreathed corridors. Finally, I realized why it resonated so strongly. I had witnessed a normal Tuesday morning: school, studying for a test, daily chatter, guides, shopkeepers looking for tourists, and tourists looking at the sights. It could have been any tourist destination anywhere in the world. But this time, it was in Haiti.
Like many who have filtered through the country, I held memories of Haiti that were complicated, any happiness diluted by the things I lived through. But near the end of my road trip, in a grassy field alongside Sans Souci Palace, the power of these memories receded a bit. A new narrative began, in which it wasn’t brave or unusual to see Haiti’s sights, to eat its food, to interact with the people I came across, and to be a tourist. It was normal.
At the Cap Haitien airport the next day, the waiting area was new and well maintained. As I waited for the flight, I thought about the last moments of our road trip and about saying goodbye to Frantz. We had stood in the airport parking lot under the shade of a big yellow school bus and ate lunch his mother had prepared for us -— Creole sauce, pan-fried fish, pickled vegetables, and Haitian rice. It was so delicious that I can still taste it. When we were done, he drove me to the departure area. I gave Frantz a picture I had recently come across. It was the two of us 17 years ago, on one of our first road trips through the country. Saying goodbye felt like the end of an era, one that expressed itself through silence rather than words.
In the airport waiting area, the lights flickered and went out. The fast descending tropical sun threw broad shadows across the walls, but unlike past moments, I did not assume the worst. I figured the lights would come back on, and soon they did.