Bel Rev - Port Au Prince, Haiti
Last year (July 2016) I was extremely fortunate to selected as Blue Marble Dreams' culinary consultant to help them launch a community-driven desserts shop in Port Au Prince, Haiti named Bel Rev. It was one of the most incredible and eye-opening experiences I've ever been a part of. I'll admit, I was a little nervous heading down to Haiti for the first time - it's not exactly known as a "nice" place - but once I was there I fell in love with the people, the food, and the eternally optimistic POV most Haitians have. We have so, so much to learn from them.
Since returning from Haiti, I've been asked by various people who are heading there for some travel tips or anecdotes from my experience. It's not an easy place to travel - especially if you don't speak French - but a special place and worth a visit. Just make sure to be safe and well prepared because once you're there, access to anything is pretty limited. For anyone heading to Haiti, I wish you a wonderful trip and hope these travel tips make your life a little easier.
Bring both USD and Haitian Dollars in cash. It’s $10 USD to get into the country and almost everything else is cash. There are some foreign exchange places once you land, but not many, once you get into the country. I didn't see an ATM for over a week. Only the “fancy” areas have credit card machines.
Bring a Camelbak backpack and fill it with plenty of water at a U.S. airport before landing. Once landing, get water from a reputable source and fill up your backpack before going out anywhere – the heat will knock you off your feet, especially in the summer. Everyone sells bottled water and bagged water on the street, but I would recommend sticking to water at your hotel because that water isn't filtered to the levels Americans are accustomed to.
Hire a driver. There are no taxis to speak of. The local transportation is a wagon with benches in the back, but they are usually very full so unless you’re comfortable standing or hanging off the back of the wagon a driver is the way to go. He/she will also know exactly how to get to places and to advise you if you should not go.
Note that traffic is unpredictable and usually very bad. Whatever Google Maps may say takes 20 minutes will be an hour, if not more. Buffer in a lot of time in between stops and as #2 says, bring lots of water if you get stuck.
Bring lots of long-sleeved shirts and long pants that are breathable and flowy. There are a lot of bugs and mosquitos and you’ll need the protection from both those garments plus a lot of bug repellent (see below) to keep them at bay. Sunglasses are also a must as the sun is very bright here (I know that sounds silly but it was much, much worse in Haiti than in SE Asia).
Make sure your bug spray is at least 20% picaridin. Deet is not as effective as picaridin and also smells a whole lot worse. Make sure to apply constantly throughout the day – especially at night when the sun sets and before you go to bed. The bugs are most active when it’s a little cooler.
Bring some light snacks and electrolytes for your water. The main food group here is fruit, which you may tire of, or grains. The meat on the street is probably not a safe bet. If you do get sick, having snacks like water crackers will also help your stomach.
Bring all the medicine you can before you come here. Some of the more important I found to be were: charcoal pills (if you get food poisoning), malaria pills, hydrocortisone (for bug bites), Neosporin (for cuts), Monistat / Vagasil / antibiotics for a yeast infection or UTI (easier to get when it's hot), Ibuprofen / Advil (for a cold), Claritin / Benadryl (for allergies), Imodium (for diarrhea), a laxative (for constipation), hand sanitizer (for when there’s no running water and your hands are dirty), and eye drops (the smog is bad here and your eyes will itch). I think it goes without saying sunscreen is important. Another nice thing to have is some pre-moistened towelettes to clean your face during the day. There are pharmacies here, but their goods may be suspect. Please do not buy the pills that vendors are selling on the street.
If you won’t have a mosquito net at the place of your stay, get a net. This will save you from a lot of unnecessary bites.
Haitians are a friendly bunch and not usually the type to pickpocket and steal. More likely they will just stare at you and talk Kreyol about you. Sometimes the kids will want to touch you. Just smile at them and go on your merry way.
Turn your phone on airplane before you touchdown. The minute you land, your data service will start charging you and Haiti is not included in almost any travel plan.
Find somewhere to do your laundry. You’ll sweat so much, you’ll cycle through your clothes much faster than anticipated. Laundry has a surprisingly fast turnaround since the clothes dry so quickly in the heat.
It’s really, really hot and humidity is around 60%. If you think ice cream melts in 5 minutes, here that means 1. Plan accordingly.
When finding things to eat, look for foods that haven’t been sitting out for a long time and stick to things that are in the stewed/braised/slow-cooked variety. The freshest vegetable you’ll going to eat for a while may be some fresh avocado as greens should all be cooked down. This is not a place to get some ceviche or eat salads.
Be wary of any ice you receive for your drinks. I would advise drinking everything sans ice unless you’re at a place you trust makes the ice from potable water.
Most importantly, have a wonderful time! As my program director loved to say, Haiti is like "paradise in hell". It really is beautiful despite the mess. I also recommend reading up about the history of Haiti (you'll find yourself so angry about the governmental injustices) and watching the documentary Poverty Inc. if you're looking for ways to help contribute to the Haitian economy.