The old Cathédrale Notre-Dame cast a long shadow on Cap-Haïtien’s town square. My sister Maryse and I sat in a cramped café, sipping on papaya smoothies made thick with condensed milk. Just outside, next to the blue-and-white ouvert sign hanging in the window, two young boys in tattered, American-branded T-shirts opened the door for customers. With outstretched dark-skinned hands, they held their palms to the sun, hoping for spare change.
I drummed my glass with my fingertips and glanced at my Blackberry as we waited for the rest of our crew to arrive. Two boxy TVs mounted on a wall broadcast a soccer match between Chile and Uruguay, and a Konpa music video where Haitian men with tight-fitting shirts unbuttoned daringly low crooned to dour-faced, sexily clad ingenues. The café’s air conditioner blew a sharp breeze against my neck, which still glistened with sweat from the short walk over from the large studio apartment I rented above a hardware store. Behind a long glass counter displaying peanut and coconut brittle, several brown-skinned women with wide hips and narrow waists served smoked herring, cornmeal, and sòs pwa, a red-bean sauce, to the breakfast crowd—a group of single men with their noses pressed to their phones or else pointed up toward the music videos or the soccer match playing on-screen.
“How much longer?” I asked Maryse in a low voice, so as not to draw attention to us. We had grown accustomed to—and resentful of—men’s stares and vulgar comments. As diaspora—Haitians born to Haitian nationals—living lot- bo- dlo, or on the other side of the water, our Creole is mangled by our foreign accents, spoken in staccato as we search for words buried beneath our Americanness.
We were both working in Cap-Haïtien for a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)–funded project. My focus was on building the infrastructure for a housing-development program intended to help decentralize Haiti’s cities; Maryse was working to double farmers’ incomes in rural areas. We were, as the French expats say, en mission, which sounds far more heroic than most people care to admit. Though we are of Haitian descent, as young professional women living in the so-called land of opportunity that is the United States, we’d come to understand a common perception that our lives were largely without suffering, at least by the intended beneficiaries of our projects. While our American upbringing was shaped in part by our black identity, in Haiti, a predominantly black country, our foreign passports, education, values, and dreams are privileges that define and set us apart. We were participating in a foreign-aid industry dictated by shallow relationships and unearned advantages that sold overpriced salves to treat the world’s ills without ever offering a cure. Here, we are blan, or white.
“They’re here,” Maryse said, standing up to sling on her backpack. I left a few wrinkled gourdes on the table, strapped on my backpack, and tightened the belt on my jeans. Having lived in Cap-Haïtien longer than me, Maryse often organized excursions like the one we were going on today to a cave in Dondon, a small town on the outskirts of Cap-Haïtien, or Okap, as Haitians affectionately call the nation’s second-largest city.
1 Josue and Patrick's names have been changed.
The guys waited for us outside. There was James, a racially ambiguous Haitian of Spanish descent, with straight black hair and white high-tops; Brooklyn-bred Josue, a hefty and gregarious graduate student working on his dissertation; and Josue’s younger cousin Patrick, who was quiet and athletic and who would take on the hills and streams ahead of us while we struggled to keep up.1
The only caves I’d seen were those in movies or children’s storybooks, where some plucky hero or heroine was privy to magnificent rituals lit by a midnight fire. Though I’d heard about caves in southern Haiti, where my mother’s family is from, I’ve since learned that much of Haiti’s landscape is karst—land containing irregular limestone formed by erosion. As a result, underground streams, gorges, and caves are scattered all over the country. Many caves have begun to gain more notoriety now, as the Haitian government is aggressively promoting foreign tourism.
Caves are an important part of Haitian culture, just as they were to the Taíno, the indigenous people who inhabited the land before the arrival of Europeans and enslaved Africans in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Under French colonialism, escaped African slaves, known as maroons, used caves as hideouts and for Vodou gatherings and other African ancestral ceremonies. Since then, caves have continued to serve as temporary shelters for those whose homes have been wiped out by devastating hurricanes.
Many of these multi-tiered limestone caverns can fit hundreds of people. Some can only be accessed by select tour guides of the Ministry of Tourism. Others are surrounded by water, where the sound of the ocean crashing against sandy shores is sonorous in their bellies.
The cave we were visiting was an hour-long ride from the city and another ninety-minute hike on foot.
We arrived at the bus depot around ten in the morning. There was mud everywhere that quickly turned my sneakers brown and soggy. Along the perimeter of the depot, a line of old school buses shipped from the United States formed a yellow aluminum wall. Around us, people climbed into the beds of modified pickup trucks, known as camionettes, which had been outfitted with benches and tin shelters decorated by vibrant portraits of black celebrities—usually an American or a Haitian konpa band—or illustrations of Bible stories. There were depictions of everyone from 50 Cent and Whitney Houston to Jonah and the whale. “God Is with Us” was painted in sprawling Creole on the back of another.
Sinewy, sweat-drenched teenage boys stood on the bumpers, calling out their destinations:
“Trou du Nord!”
The teenager on the Dondon bus gestured with his head for us to come over and then grabbed a bag of water from a basin balanced atop a passing marchande’s head. She paused, the weight of the basin drawing her up tall like a statue; beads of sweat streamed down her temples and between her sagging breasts, and she took his change. These hand-size bags of water were packaged from recycled plastic and sold cheaply in Haiti’s informal market, where men and women hawk them at traffic lights and thoroughfares such as this one.
We were shoulder to shoulder on the camionette as the last passengers, a young mother and her little girl, squeezed in beside me. The girl began nodding with sleep, the colorful barrettes on her pigtails brushing against my bare arms. I caught her mother’s eye, and we silently maneuvered the little girl’s body so that she was stretched out on our laps. She nuzzled her head against my belly as we swatted flies and mosquitoes away from her.
A shapely young woman in tight jeans and a blue sequined halter sat down across from Josue, and he began to chat her up. Josue is a jokester, and whether he is making self-deprecating jokes about his weight or his slight American accent when speaking fluent Creole, his humor breaks the silence of strangers, as we were now, gathered together on our shared transportation. He gesticulated with the awareness that he’d drawn a crowd. Some of the more hardened faces cracked smiles at the jokes I was unable to hear over the rumbling tires on shoddy roads that led us out of Okap. The young woman laughed heartily, throwing her head back and drawing her shoulders up to her ears so that her long braids draped over the railing behind her. The sequins bounced across her chest; she was like a disco ball.
Dondon’s town square was noticeably sparse. The dirt at our feet was dry, and there was little to shade us from the sun. We’d been dropped off in front of the town courthouse, a one-level concrete building in the middle of the square, which was dusty and deserted on a Saturday. Patrick disappeared inside while the rest of us took in the scene. Cacti cropped up at random, as is often seen in many of Haiti’s small towns en deyo, or outside the major cities. There were small, unpainted concrete houses a short distance ahead of us, shrouded by a fence of cacti winding up and around the perimeter of modest front yards where barefoot children squealed with laughter. In the hills just behind us were the letters D-O-N-D-O-N, spelled out in white cut-out letters not unlike those of the Hollywood sign that overlooks Los Angeles. The sign seemed to indicate that we had arrived in a place of importance. It was as though Dondon had been expecting us.
When Patrick returned, he was followed by a thin, muscular man who looked to be in his forties. The man’s T-shirt clung to his chest in the heat, and skepticism was etched deeply into the lines at the corners of his eyes. He would be our guide, Patrick told us, and together we set out for the cave.
It wasn’t long before our guide was several yards ahead of us, already crossing over a creek, sandals in hand and pants rolled up to his knees. By the time we were preparing to cross, he’d already made it to the other side and had found a rock to sit on. His face was expressionless as we made our way, wincing in pain as we balanced our feet on sharp stones, our sneakers tied together and dangling from our shoulders. Surely, we could not have descended from those who had once worked the land.
A lot is done out in the open countryside, from preparing food to bathing and washing laundry. Along the way, we greeted villagers, on whose space we were intruding, with the requisite “onè,” which means “honor” in Creole; to which they answered, “respè,” or “respect.” It was as though the traditional greeting were received as an invitation for folks to stare: children paused their games to watch with gaping mouths, squatting women cooking on outdoor gas flames squinted up at us with furrowed brows, and the men who congregated at the local lotto ogled Maryse and me. “Bel moun,” they said—“beautiful people.” We lumbered along, an entertaining caravan.
After more than an hour of walking, our guide was out of sight.
“Men moun mwen!” Josue jovially declared to two elderly women, each riding side-saddle on a donkey. “Here are my people.”
“Are the caves this way?” he asked.
Their smiles faded, and they shook their heads with the sternness of grandmothers: “Evangelik nou ye”—“We are Christian,” or, more literally, “We are Evangelical.” The women kicked their donkey’s behind and trotted away from us.
Our guide eventually reappeared at the shore of a small creek, over which someone had placed a wooden plank. He waved us over.
“This is it,” Patrick told us.
The plank didn’t look like it offered much support, and the guys waded through the water while Maryse and I supported each other to the other side, where a narrow and uneven rock staircase led to the dark, gaping mouth of the cave.
Our guide hadn’t crossed over. “Mwen se Evangelik,” he said.
In the middle the afternoon, the cave emitted only darkness, except for what sunlight managed to reflect off some of the rock that formed the mouth. There, the stone was shiny and gray, with formations hanging down from the ceiling, suspended in air. Whatever grass remained at our feet appeared trodden and wet from the stream or a recent rainfall. Branches sparsely covered in leaves shielded the cave’s mouth—a tremendous black hole carved out of the mountainside.
Inside the cool dankness of the cave, the four of us stood up easily as more jutting rock from the walls and the ceiling encroached on the space, making it smaller than I had imagined. Cozy, even. Our whispers sounded almost melodious. A chorus of squeaking sounds sang from the shadows above.
We lingered, the five of us in the cave’s mouth, quietly looking about, shining our flashlights above our heads.
Where the rock had flattened out, there were messages in languages from all over the world, tagged on the walls in permanent marker. Scribblings like “Carey was here,” “We love you Haiti,” and others with names or initials in hearts had been left in black ink.
It occurred to me that none of us would ever tag the walls of a church or desecrate what might have been a haven for desperate people seeking refuge. And that we had been warned, in a language we grew up understanding, in voices that were familiar to us, and by bodies we had learned to emulate, not to enter this place. I was struck by the recklessness of it all—the ease of accessibility despite whatever temporary physical discomfort, our disregard for the apprehension of those whose paths we’d crossed along the way, and now, the oblivious disrespect of the visitors who came before us.
Perhaps we heard the voices of our parents, cautious men and women brought up during a time when the country regularly sent its best and brightest to foreign shores. Our identity wasn’t a cloak you could easily put on and take off at will. It came with unspoken agreements and included a spiritual discernment that you often did not question. Curiosity, when it reared its head, was rarely fed—not without an honest, sacrificial offering of honor and respect. Greetings were polite. And maybe, by adopting a brand of our generation’s misguided, progressive tropes, we had wielded a cheap insult. In our quest for adventure, we had sounded off a foghorn that signaled to our countrymen that even we were to be handled with suspicion.
I knew I didn’t need to go any further.
“I wouldn’t do that, James,” I said as he bent down on all fours to follow the narrow path into the interior. “Besides, I can’t save you if something happens.”
The cave echoed with everyone’s laughter.
“As if you could ever save him from anything,” my sister cried.
James stood up just then and sighed impatiently, placing both hands on his hips as he often did.
“I need a cigarette.”
We turned to begin the journey back to Okap.