The Adventure Escaping Hurricane Matthews (Haiti)
When I first thought of where I wanted to spend my birthday I decided that it would have to be something special, I wanted to spend my 30th birthday abroad, it would be the Bahamas! Little did I know mother nature had other plans for me ... it was one day into hell and back!
The adventure began when I found out that I could take a bus from Santo Domingo to Port-Au-Prince (PAP) for under $30 USD. I would be a one day trip and it wouldn't hurt to visit one more country while I was already in the island. Besides, I had one day to spare before taking my flight to the Bahamas and spending my birthday in those white sand beaches. The next morning I took the bus to PAP. I began to notice strong winds on the road and I knew that there was a storm approaching but no big deal, they had said the same about Punta Cana and nothing big really happened there.
As I entered Haiti, I immediately was shocked and heartbroken to see so much poverty. There is clearly still a big devastation and destruction from the 2010 earthquake. Having traveled to 61 countries I have experienced poverty in many countries, but nothing like I did in Mumbai, India and in Port-Au-Prince. The sad part is that PAP is not only poor but also a very dangerous city. For security purposes, I decided to stay at the Le Plaza Hotel - Port-au-Prince - Haiti, they also offered me private transfer from the bus station to the hotel and back for $25 US, which was totally worth it because safety in PAP is priceless.
I arrived to the heavily secured hotel and scheduled a tour of the city for the afternoon. Again I opted for the hotel's private tour to take me around town with a private guide. I visited the city very quickly that afternoon because I was short on time, the storm seemed to be approaching, and lastly, I was scared off after my visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral. One thing to know about this cathedral is that it is surrounded by "slums" so when I asked my tour guide to stop at the cathedral so I could go in and take some pictures, I didn't realize I was playing with fire. I got down and he said to me "make it quick" as he watched over me like a bodyguard would. Then about 1 minute into taking pics he tells me with his French accent "Let's go! Let's go now!" I couldn't understand why but then I saw a group of guys chasing after us, he said "get in the car, roll the windows over, they saw your camera and they want money." Ok, now I had realized that maybe PAP for a solo female traveler is something I would never recommend to anyone. I decided to just go to the hotel, relax in the pool and enjoy a traditional Haitian meal at the hotel's restaurant. This was it, the next day I was scheduled to leave the country and in route to the Bahamas. Before going to bed I asked the lobby to arrange my private transfer for the next morning and leave right after breakfast.
As if day 1 wasn't scary enough, the trip was about to get even more interesting! I woke up early and had already packed the night before so I went down to have breakfast. When I walked through the gardens I realized that the winds had picked up significantly and it was beginning to drizzle, I got a bit scared but no big deal, I was heading out anyways. After breakfast I grabbed my bag and went to the check out counter and asked for my taxi. The receptionist replied "Oh sorry to inform you I can arrange the taxi but both the airport and bus stations were shut down as of this morning because a hurricane is approaching." "What?! No! this cannot be true" I said. I decided to go online and check with the bus company and the airport myself. To my bad luck, it was true. The last bus allowed to leave the country was just leaving the city as I was calling. It was 9am and according to the forecast, the hurricane was going to hit Haiti around 2pm.
After hours of research, phone calls, and arguing with the bus/airlines, I asked the receptionist if she could arrange a private transfer to take me to the border and I would cross myself but she said "Well... I could, but I heard that they closed the border around noon today, the taxi would cost you $150 USD to get to the border but after that, he cannot take you into the Dominican side (Haitians cannot enter the DR) so you have to do it on your own. You have to walk about 1 mile in a very unsafe area and if the border control office is closed, you need to walk back to the Haitian side and the taxi will have to bring you back here for another $150 USD." Wow! She was right, it was very risky, I remember crossing the border from the DR to Haiti in the private bus and thinking "wow, this area is so dangerous" It's basically no man's land for about 2 miles between the two countries. There are not stores, hotels, nothing basically except for armed DR officers and tons of men selling random things and changing money. I couldn't do this on my own, it could have terrible consequences, besides, the sun was about to set and that would only add to the risk. She suggested that I simply stayed one more night and hopefully the hurricane would pass quickly so I could leave. I sadly told her "but you don't understand, my birthday is tomorrow and I am supposed to be flying right now to the Bahamas" by this time, I had already missed my flight because I was stuck in Haiti but I decided to take her advice, I mean, what else could I do? One more night at $130/night (my most expensive hotel of the trip).
Right before going to bed I asked the lobby once again, what other options are there? I mean, the hurricane was supposed to hit at 2pm, it was 9pm and nothing yet. They were now predicting it to hit at 8am on the next day, Oct 4th. My private taxi friend who was in the loop since the morning's fiasco told me "I am willing to take you to the border early tomorrow morning and take our chances if you really want to get out, if you can't get through for whatever reason then I can always bring you back during daylight" I agreed. So off to bed I went and prepared for the next morning.
It was my birthday the next morning and I was ready for this adventure... I was determined to get out of Haiti, I had to find a way! I woke up at 5am and went down to the reception desk, I checked out and thanked them for their kindness in helping me with all the international calls I had to make, helping me find a solution to this and their patience. My taxi friend wasn't there yet so I waited about 30 minutes, I was getting really nervous. Then he finally walked in and said "Jessika! I think I found a solution for you! I know this crazy Dominican lady and she owns a couple of buses that travel back and forth from PAP to the DR. Although all bus companies are not operating now she said that she's crossing that border regardless of what happens! She also has some connections at the border so they may be able to get through!" This was it! This was my only chance. I told him, "take me to her please, I don't care how much it costs or how dangerous it is, I need to get out of here!" One thing I didn't mention above is that in order to get to the border the buses need to cross an area on the road where there is no road due to all the flooding and mudslides, during heavy rains, it basically becomes a rocky river, which is why all the other bus companies had cancelled trips to begin with. To make matters worse, the hurricane was now beginning to hit, the rains were getting heavier as the sun was rising. We ended up walking to the bus station about 7 blocks away, we were basically running in order to catch this bus, my backpack weighted about 40lbs/16Kilos and I cannot tell you how many gross things I stepped on in route to this bus. Let's just say those shoes would never be worn again. I remember as I was arriving to the station I stepped on a pot hole full of water and other nasty stuff and I told myself "Happy birthday Jess" hahaha! and laughed it off.
As I arrived to the bus station we found the bus and sure enough the crazy Dominican lady said "yes, we are crossing the border with or without the storm" I felt so relieved once I got into that bus. I thanked my taxi guy and took a seat in this really old and smelly bus. Here I met my partner in crime, let's call him Ramses in this post, since I do not have his permission to mention him here. Another young adventurer with my same spirit and desire for exploration and we were just about to embrace this adventure together. We were the only two foreigners in this bus (him being European and me American), everyone else was either Dominican or Haitian.
The bus left PAP and now the rains were pretty heavy. I was so happy to leave PAP but I was very sad to see these people suffering once again. They haven't even recovered from the earthquake and in a few hours the country would be devastated by the largest hurricane in 20 years. I saw kids running into their poorly constructed houses seeking shelter, others playing in the rain, oblivious to what was about to happen. I have to admit, I never felt so sad and yet grateful for what I have. After one hour in the bus we had finally approached the "river" and sure enough, it was flooded. The bus driver said to the Dominican lady (bus owner) "I am not crossing, it's too dangerous" and she replied "No, No, we are crossing no matter what, do it! it's an order." All passengers were scared as we crossed, we were basically floating in this river of water and rubble... but finally we made it through. Everyone clapped and was happy.
Now the next challenge, we approached the border and just as predicted, the offices were closed. We could not get through any further. To make matters worse, the hurricane finally hit us right there, our bus was moving side to side because of the storm. The Dominican lady was calling her contact to see if they could help us out but they said "no, the hurricane is here, it's too late." Great! we were stuck now. The worse part is that all the passengers had the appropriate documentation to cross without a stamp except of course for me and Ramses. I got scared when the lady said "We could just leave you guys here and go." Of course she was kidding... what a sense of humor she had! After many phone calls, the lady said "thank God! One officer volunteered to come and stamp us." The problem is that the guy was riding his bike from a town 30 minutes away... with the hurricane, it would take him at least 1 hour, if he made it through the storm but after waiting for over one hour he finally showed up. Ramses and I ran out to get our passports stamped and pay the border fee. He said to us at the window "we don't take USD only Dominican money" Ahhhh.... what now? there was nobody around to change our money. We were supposed to pay $20 US fee... we gave him $50 and told him "Keep the change but please let us in," He saw the money and knotted in agreement. We ran back to the bus completely drenched and being pushed away by the wind but celebrating... it was over! We were out of Haiti finally!
Now the 3 hour bus ride to Santo Domingo awaited us. The first thing we did once we crossed the border in the next town was to buy food. It was 3pm and we hadn't eaten since the night before. It was the best and greasiest fried chicken I ever had! I was grateful for everything in that moment. The storm was a lot lighter on the Dominican side and the furthest we drove from Haiti it began to die down. The only annoying part was having 7 immigration checkpoints on our way to Santo Domingo and having to bribe the officers every time. Yeah... lot's of money wasted on this "day trip to Haiti."
It was such a great ride after all. We had lots of fun talking about our adventures and reminiscing on what had just happened. We didn't even have a place to stay in Santo Domingo since it was not in the plan to sleep in SD that night. I booked my hotel at the last minute through the bus's wifi. I decided to stay in Boca Chica once again rather than SD. It was closer to the airport and I was aiming to leave the island early the next morning and head to the Bahamas. We finally arrived to SD and to our luck, it started raining heavily once again. I decided to go back to the original apartment that I had stayed at the week before. It was such an adventure getting to Boca Chica though. The taxi kept swerving because of the heavy rains.
I finally arrived to my apartment around 9pm and decided to go out after all. Ramses felt bad that I had spent my birthday escaping a hurricane in Haiti and wanted to join me for dinner to celebrate. It was a great dinner after all, the restaurant we wanted to go to "Boca Marina" had just closed due to heavy winds/rain. The only option was "Neptuno's Club Restaurant." We were the only two customers at that hour and with that storm taking place. The guys learned about our day adventure and decided to make my birthday extra special by bringing me a cake and a singing happy birthday to me. Ok so it wasn't exactly where I pictured myself for my 30's birthday but I couldn't have asked for anything better! I was so grateful for everything on that day. Most importantly, I was thankful for my life and that alone made it a happy birthday after all.
Some of the lessons learned during this trip: 1) When visiting the caribbean I recommend NOT visiting during Hurricane season (Aug-Oct). 2) If visiting PAP I recommend staying at a large, safe hotel with a restaurant if possible, depending on your tolerance for adventure, you may be safer staying indoors. 3) Do not bring any expensive camera equipment unless you are part of a filming crew or news media. 4) Be open minded and ready for adventure.