Words by Sam Bleakley

Photography by JS Callahan / Tropicalpix

Blood and Fire Coral rule in Haiti, and death is a regular guest. Sam Bleakley, John Callahan and a small caribbean crew, skirt Fire Coral and the chaos of one of the world's poorest countries, finding small surf and big spirit.

Apre dans tanbou lou - After the dance the drum is heavy

Haiti is blue-black, her body bruised from history. But her skeleton is a pearl, rubbed to hard brilliance from grit. In the right place at the right intensity, bones seem to sing. Haiti gets under your skin. Closer to West Africa in mood, the Cap Haitien coast is a far murkier prospect than the transparent body of the Caribbean.

Rastaman Icah Wilmot lights up the session at Ras Point, exhaling spray. A small gathering of locals line the shore, hair stiffened by charcoal smoke, garments torn from the rough sandstone, palms slippery from fish scales. Live fire coral pokes through the wave face. Icah races over the burn, dreadlocks snaking. I swerve into the next set, getting high on the nose, up near the lip to avoid touching any live wires. A long ride brings the audience to a chorus – fanning hot coals. A fishergirl interplays with my kick out and breaks into a shakedown. An aspiring vodouisant, her gyrations sweep clean anything Bajan Zed Layson has seen in two decades of Sunday’s “Shake ‘yer’ booty contest” in Barbados.

“That’s some dancing,” says Cornishman Tristan Jenkin, now contemplating a scrape from the reef. Tentacles protrude from shallow cores, bright yellow-green and brown stingers everywhere. “It’s the shallowest wave I’ve ever ridden.”

“It’s a vodou lesson in living dangerously,” I reply. On this small swell the wave is just at the edge of chaos. One slip and your skin is sloughed, your bones ready to show. To keep balance you’ve got to move at speed. In Haiti you live life with intensity – maximum complexity at the edge of chaos. Invite death onto your side for conversation – but do not go over to chaos. The spirits inhabit busy places, crushing into the smallest spaces to make them fizz.

Vodou invites brushes with danger. Zed sets up a smooth line, but the wave is suddenly a flimsy skin over a poisonous skeleton and he skitters over the spine with nothing to spare. Haiti turns you inside out. We motor east in the four-stroke, the high scoured wave-cut platforms a sure sign that this spot gets solid surf. The captain stylishly navigates through the tiny keyhole in the reef to the beach at Cormier, just west of Cap Haitien (a.k.a. ‘Cap’). After a swashbuckling life as a diver discovering historic shipwrecks, Cormier Plage Hotel’s owner, Jean-Claude Dicquemare, knows an old salt when he sees one, hence his top-class boat captain.

“I have my wife, and my mistress, the sea, so I’m happy,” says Jean-Claude, who married on the islet of La Amiga (The Girlfriend), discovered and christened by Columbus in 1492 before he built the New World’s first settlements on this island, known as Hispaniola.

Cormier captures a touch of the exploration spirit, nestled in a bay a long way from mini-mal corporate fashion. But the media-driven apocalyptic imagery of Haiti is keeping the visitors out. We are the first tourists at Cormier in a long while. Only UN employees and NGO workers keep the place afloat. Not surprisingly the kitchen is a bit rusty. Hungry and aware of the potential two-hour wait for food, Tristan asks the waitress, “Can I have a banana, please?”

“Oui,” she replies, looking a bit confused before disappearing into the kitchen, and reappearing with a pool cue! Maybe a request for a drink will work.

“Can we have some water, s’il vous plait?”

“Chicken?” she says.

“Poisson for dinner,” I reply, reiterating our group order for fish.

“You want poulet?” she says.

“No,” states John Callahan, supplying a much needed stern intervention. “I will say this once – fish, please.”

No matter how polished your French, Haitian Creole is complicated. John’s statement quells the confusion and the seafood arrives – gourmet lobster, ceviche and snapper. They up the ante in the morning with pineapple and shaddock grapefruit which Caribbean Nathalie Zenny claims to be “the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.”

Sugar-fuelled to surf Ginsu, we become the possible meat on a plate where smooth faces disguise a sharp tabletop. This spot is like a double-edged kitchen knife. If the serrated lip doesn’t catch you, the razor reef will. Haiti’s finest surfer, Russell Berhmann, named it after a famous brand of American cutlery. Despite his long-term connection with the States, Russell’s anchor now rests in Haiti. Although more passionate about the south coast waves, he admits that, “Few spots have the energy and consistency of Ginsu.” The glassy 3ft rights appear to curve, bowl and roll in a simple bass theme, easy to hum, like the opening to Charles Mingus’ ‘Haitian Fight Song’.

But a few sets in and the session becomes more complex. We make it more complex, increasingly taking risks, our awareness more tuned into the chopping-board rock on the inside. Mingus, the great American jazz composer and bassist, wrote the tune for the album The Clown to imitate the intense lives of the Haitian people he so admired, and to protest against the legacy of slavery. Eventually the tune wails and swings – a deep feeling in the composition that, for Mingus, reflects the Haitians’ intense resolution and desire to live life to the maximum, abandoning easy, sweet melody for complex engagement.

The curtain falls, and the fire coral scrapes the skin, burning and itching. Your bones ring with the clatter and bounce. We all take a hit. The session is a dicey dance. A fast take-off flows to a finishing snap, into one inch of fin space, an aggressive climb out of the foam, and a crab-claw paddle out of the shallow zone, hoping you don’t get sucked back in. The light turns golden before the sun falls behind the Bonnet Mountains. I paddle shorewards, over the urchin forest, scuffing the board to save skin. I walk and duck through the salt stained banana field. The long stroll home is a twisting, stony road, the limestone worn smooth like marble. Dust sticks to the sole until a fresh water outflow puts mud between the toes. Past the wise, bearded goats and shy pigs, up to the small village where the men play dominoes, the loser covered in clothes pegs as ritual humiliation.

Bingo tomorrow. Prize cocks relaxing for the fight on Sunday. Winner takes all. A UN tank roars past, packed with bored Chilean patrol troops. Nothing to do but stir a grass snake to activity. But the local fishermen are busy, breaking up a wrecked boat for building wood. Hard wood is met by hard work and matched by a work song, the Creole chorus helping to ease the strain.

Men anpil chay pa lou -- Many hands make the load lighter.

Tony Casseus is sipping whiskey at the Cormier bar. A close friend of Russell’s, the local mulatto admires our bravado to seek surf in Haiti. Tony runs the University in Cap, but mountain biking is his real kick. Trouble is, there are no tourists for his extreme bike tours, despite the appeal of epic steep hill runs. “Ayiti is the Creole name for ‘mountainous country’. And the Haitians walk everywhere, so the bike trails are unbeatable,” explains Tony. Like Russell, his heart and his family rest here. The phone interrupts.

“I’ve got to go and collect my wife, Valentina,” says Tony.

“She broke down in town.” After a few too many whiskeys, Tony is moulded into the furniture.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“I could do with someone to come with me.” Tony swaggers out of the bar, toward the car, and stops for a leak. “I’m going to get you to drive for me.” I admire his common sense.

“No problem,” I say, sober. At the helm of a Jeep Cherokee, off-road into the Haitian night is a trip I can’t miss. I start up and the bumps become chronic.

“We don’t really want the road to get paved, ‘cos if it does it will become a shantytown,” says Tony. I push hard on the accelerator, enjoying the ease of automatic, trying to weave the smoothest line through the pitted route.

“See that boat just there?” says Tony.

“Those dim lights close to shore?”

“They’re collecting the crack cocaine to take over to Miami. They come in every night.”

“Do you know them?” I ask, trying to keep in the present, my mind slipping into the dread zone of being innocently sucked into a BIG drug deal.

“I try not to get tangled up with the dealers. I just let them do their thing. They’re heavy guys.” I breathe, realising I had not breathed for a few seconds. I gasp. I’ve always seen these pressing moments as an extension of the search to which I’m addicted. The sudden relief is like skittering over the coral heads without catching the fin as the water sucks out across the reef. We reach Cap and Tony wanders off to find Valentina. The guidebooks don’t advise Haiti by night, alone. My blood heats up. I keep the engine running, accelerator at the ready, lock all the doors. But I start to realise everyone recognises Tony’s wagon. He has serious street credibility here. My fears dissolve again: I feel welcome through association with Tony. He finds Valentina and we drive home.

“Cap at night is a lot safer than I thought.”

“If you treat the street right, it treats you right,” says Tony. “People here have got spirit. They put up with a lot. Visitors have just got to have a bit of spirit too, and they’ll be fine.”

Shutters hang on rusty hinges. Balconies crumble and colour wash fades and peels in a last gasp of colonial grandeur. French doors seem to creak in Creole. But Cap’s bright colours have never properly washed off. There is the deep stain of history, which we are privileged to admit to our senses as the first tourists in years to walk around the town without fear. St Domingue, as Haiti was once known, was ‘The Pearl of the Antilles’, France’s most important overseas territory, supplying copious amounts of sugar, rum, coffee and cotton. Le Cap used to be ‘Little Paris’. Her charm persists, a la New Orleans, pumping like fresh blood, tuned to the old ways, but never skipping a beat.

“There’s a lot of stuff moving, man,“ says Icah. This is the antithesis to the laidbac Caribbean beachside. It’s only a short way from home for the 19-year-old, who lives just east of Kingston at his family-fuelled epicentre of the Jamaican surf culture, but it’s a world apart from easygoing rum shacks. Haiti spins a fine vodou yarn between chaos and control, capturing the heart, and making it race.

“The informal economy is thriving,” says John. Goods balanced on heads, the locals step elegantly over steaming piles of trash, next to wheelbarrows selling everything from dental floss to dinner jackets. Pores glisten with sweat in the competition for space. A basket on the floor, packed with bike parts, is pulled aside for the through passage of a huge, laden barrow. This is a cargo of ice. Beads of perspiration drip off the hauler’s back, flowing quicker than the ice melts. A pig squeals and is strapped once more into the wheelbarrow with some fresh plantains. Mobile pharmacies advertise their medicines through loud hailers, giving a new twist to the reality of street drugs.

“Check that acetylene cylinder slung over the guy’s shoulder on the motorbike,” says Tristan. Back home in Cornwall he works as a firefighter and knows that the highly unstable gas used for welding will explode if dropped. “We have to back up 200 metres if we get to a site with this stuff.” I liven up, Zed keeps cool, streetwise as always. The rider bumps, wobbles, nearly loses it, tweaks the accelerator, speeds on, and rebalances, like a firework with an endless fuse. Cliffhangers everywhere. Life tumbles by. Rickety old pick-ups, transformed into tap-taps (like Filipino jeepneys), weave in and out of the crowded street, pull in close to a curb to pick up and drop off passengers, and pull out just as swiftly, without ever seeming to collide. Cloaked in evangelical signs, they praise Dieu and Don Jesus, Jesus Roi des Rois, and Dieu avant tous.

The fatal accident never happens, but death is everywhere, visiting. In the syncretic Catholic-vodou view one must live dangerously, close to death, and invite the dead into the place of the living, as a preparation for afterlife. Alive and kicking, groups of children jump out and walk by in clean school uniforms. Blue ribbons for one class, pink for another. Laundered clothes dry on dusty cacti. The skeleton is coaxed out, up front, scrubbed, cleaned, and worn on the outside. Expect reversal in Haiti.

The smell of ripe garbage fills the air, communities piling it up to block the roads as a form of protest against the government, who they think should not only collect the waste, but also turn on the electricity that hasn’t been available for a month.

“Rastaman,” shout the Haitians in admiration. Icah doesn’t cut or comb his hair, and is a novelty here. Fellow Jamaican, Nathalie is also with us. Her father is Haitian, and alongside six other languages, she speaks Creole. She works for a marine conservation charity and loves the thriving live reefs here, which we can see glistening in the sun on the drive back to Cormier. She’s used to seeing dilapidated Caribbean coral – over-fished and dead from sediment, the lights gone, filaments now ash grey.

We’re back in time to wash off the Cap soot with an evening session at Ginsu, the electricity permanently available just under the skin of the sea – a glowing skeleton and an itching phosphor.

Bel anteman pa di paradi - A beautiful burial does not guarantee heaven

Google Earth has become the new tool in surf searching, a surreal way of spotting Indo-like left reefs that sculpt swells in Haiti. But getting to these spots in the real rather than the virtual is an altogether different challenge. Fuel is never an easy thing to find in Cap. The leaded is often mixed with kerosene, as Tony knows too well. A clean mix in the tank, we head towards the deep-water violets and indigos, toward the serene mountain back set in the Baie d’Acul. Immune to any storm, Columbus used this bay as a shelter during his first voyage. The Santa Maria, Columbus’ flagship, wiped out on a reef further down the coast. A mountain face, steamy with clouds, dwarfs another bay. The village, rivermouth and mangrove swamp is an amphitheatre to a good left, thankfully offshore in the funnelled wind. It’s small, but beautiful, and we surf.

“With all the fresh water it won’t be live coral,” I say to Tristan, but we quickly realise it looks sharp as nails and the urchins are thriving. The walk and paddle is a tiptoe across a tightrope. Unscathed until now, Zed executes another sweet cutback, but has to adjust the turn for a drastic dry patch, and loses his board. You cannot walk over the reef, so I retrieve it by paddling. I expose my core to the urchin spikes. Pinballed, I have one board hooked by my back foot and the other saving my skin from bone-dry coral. Determined not be wrecked I make ground as a set offers a few precious inches of liquid. I scratch to safety, both boards aged by one year. Next wave I grab my outside rail to hook out from the shallows at speed, but smack my first three fingers into the reef notch. It’s like having them slammed in a car door. This breathtaking place needs a big north swell to break clear into the channel, but it is a long way from automobiles and streetlights, so not a bad tradeoff for a few scars.

The unmarked piece of paradise is suddenly cut to shreds as an enormous Royal Caribbean cruise liner rises over the horizon, 10 storeys high. Fishermen pause to watch from their sailboats as the thing they call the ‘sea monster’ steams closer. A short way from empty reefbreaks, the floating theme park is packed with floating fake icebergs, waterslides and jetskis. The machinery of this simulacrum is lubricated with alcohol, suntan cream and diesel grease. Dinghies have deposited the 2,000 tourists back onto the boat, their Haiti ‘experience’ complete. But there is no stamp on their passports and most of them thought they were on “Labadie Island”. Haiti is hard to market. The media have done a lot of damage to her reputation. Royal Caribbean’s website mystifies the bay as a ‘secret’ destination, a ‘private island located off the coast of Hispaniola.’ For the last 20 years the cruise line has provided the largest source of tourism revenue to Haiti, enjoying dirt-cheap entry and minimal regulation. Current estimates are that the Haitian government earns a measly US$30,000 a week from the ship, which employs less than 500 locals. Back on the boat the few thousand tourists will consume enough food in seven days to last 35,000 Haitians for a week. There is still slavery by proxy. Praise Mingus for writing a protest song.

Secluded Labadie has always been a great anchorage and fresh water source since buccaneer times. We try to go ashore next to the preserved ruins of a tavern, chapel and ‘habitation’ that offer a reminder of the old days. Now it is buttressed by thick jungle and a 10ft high steel wall watched by armed guards, and entry for visitors is US$30.00 – about one-eighth of an average Haitian’s annual income. So instead we head one bay west to Labadie Village, a small fishing community with brightly painted homes. We walk around in the safe and welcoming atmosphere. The older women running all the small shops seem to have figured us out. Spotting that we aren’t cruise ship types, they invite us for a drink of Barboncourt rum, smooth, old and aged in Haitian oak.

“Of any port in a storm, I would choose Labadie Village, not Labadie Island,” says John. Haiti has much more to offer than her vibrant art and colourful food, but Royal Caribbean does not allow its passengers to go beyond the compound. Not even to the famous Citadelle and Sans Souci.

“A must see,” says Tony, who takes us to the Citadelle the following day. Sitting in the back of his pick-up on loose car seats driving through Cap, we stick out.

“Bonjour, blanc. You look like Michael Jackson,” shouts one Haitian, two hands raised and clenched. Within 10 minutes we have 3mm of grey dust coating our skin, masking some of our tourist white. The dust settles as we ascend. The vegetation is lush, with only small pockets of deforestation from charcoal production. The second oldest republic in the western hemisphere has raped its hinterland, but its North still sparkles.

“Someday maybe the French will come,” is written in the comment book at the Citadelle. King Henri Christophe built the castle to defend Northern Haiti against Napoleon’s army. The French never came (at least not with an armada), Henri shot himself, and the fortress was abandoned, lying in eternal wait, cannonballs still piled up intact. Garbi, our guide, is more used to tourists coming over the boarder from their Dominican Republic holidays, the drip feed enough to have helped him speak pidgin in five languages.

“After a slave rebellion and war of liberation against the French colonialists, Haiti was born in 1804,” says Garbi to open his history lesson. “King Henri Christophe made Cap his capital and could have held out for a year against a French return up here,” added Garbi, now looking over the vertigo-inducing summit, explaining that the cannons could catapult their shot way out into the Atlantic.

“Why is the Sans Souci palace below so wrecked?” I ask, figuring it might have been hit by a few stray cannonballs.

“Shaken down in an earthquake,” says Garbi. At this elevation, we hope the ground does not move, and as a peace offering I buy Garbi’s stock of five bamboo flutes, pay his tour fee, and add a tidy tip.

Kay koule twompe soley men li pa twombe lapli - The leaky house can fool the sun, but it can’t fool the rain

“I was expecting Haiti to be more hostile and edgy,” I say to Russell, now back at Cormier Plage, quenching my thirst with Prestige beer. “It’s so rich and welcoming.” We conclude that Haiti is like a breaking wave. The blue face curls into white eddies, over a bed of sharp bones. In the wrong spot, you’ll get nailed. In the pocket, with momentum, you’ll be styling. Trapped in a mundane world? Make the leap. Take out the taboo from the vodou. Haiti is beautiful. But I wonder why brains like Russell’s have not embraced liberating politics here.

“I’ve lost uncles over the years who spoke out,” says Russell, who knows it’s best to keep zipped and just concentrate on business. He would never want to leave his beloved country, despite the rollercoaster of life here. After all, he’s got more waves to slip into. Tony arrives suddenly, looking stunned, and handing a gun to his bodyguard.

“I got caught up in Cap. There are riots because it doesn’t look like the government are going to turn on the electricity for Christmas.” Miraculously we have skirted around Cap just in time.

“Who are they targeting?”

“The UN, or anyone better off than them. It’s not much violence, more roadblocks and noise. They just want to be heard. It’s the first bit of trouble for a few years,” says Tony. Cormier bar, running on its own generator, becomes a hive of Cap tales with Haitian businessmen Max Laroche and Nicholas Bussenius having just arrived.

“How did it unfold four years ago with President Aristide?” I ask Max.

“There was a rebel uprising to overthrow him and when they hit Cap they razed the airport to the ground, but didn’t put the chokehold on the North that the global media portrayed,” says Max. Certainly there was violence. Tony, ever curious to get involved, had a tangle with some of Guy Philippes’ rebels. The situation slipped into chaos. Tony was struck in the head and then the shoulder by a machete, while his eight-year-old adopted daughter, Vanessa, was in the back of the car. Tony passed out, slipped through to the other side. But the rebels drove him and Vanessa to hospital. Stitched up, he recovered, and Vanessa is now a savvy 12-year-old. Back then the rebels were all staying in Nicholas Bussenius’ Hotel Mont Joli.

“I had only taken over Mont Joli in November,” says Nicholas, “and was hosting all the foreign journalists when the rebels arrived in February. ‘Anything you want?’ They asked. ‘How about a little crowd control?’ I said, and pum pum pum, they let loose a few rounds into the sky. They were in charge. But the food and alcohol was flowing.”

The rebels had agreed to disarm if Aristide left, and it wasn’t long before US soldiers swept him out to South Africa.

“The next morning the rebels paid their month-long bill, $20,000 in cash, and left, no trouble, no fuss,” added Nicholas.

“It’s been stable for a long time now,” says Laurent, Max’s girlfriend, for the night. “I’ve been running the Red Cross mandate in the North for 16 months. It’s now finished, which is a good thing because it means there’s no conflict,” she says. “Really the only dangerous place in Haiti these days is Port au Prince,” the buzzing capital where 19 kidnappings a day for ransom are the way the gangs operate. “Haiti is doing OK,” concluded Laurent, turning her back on us to enjoy the rest of the evening toying with Max’s moustache.

“It’s all about who you know in Haiti,” says Zed, whose smart organisation has been essential to our trip. Olivier Jean, the manager of Tortug’Air, is a crucial contact. But for all the power of who you know, life here is really about perseverance and invention for the moment. For instance: it’s not easy trying to fit two longboards and 10 shortboards on a 19-seater twin prop Turbolet aircraft. The hold is 5ft deep and 3ft high. The only option is to block the aisle, or remove four seats from one side of the plane. The geometry seems impossible, but with the right attitude, anything is possible, especially in Haiti. Olivier and his pilots shine. Seats are unbolted, passengers clamber in, boards fill up the space and we make it back to Port au Prince International.

We kept our balance on that spinning vodou vortex, kept moving on the right side of chaos. Haiti painted us a positive picture. Taking off, peering out from the window, I look at the shrinking world of tropical rooftops and good empty waves only two short flights from Miami, recalling the Haitian proverb: dèyè mòn gen mòn – behind mountains there are more mountains. Under the skin, the skeleton calls.

Pro surfer and freelance writer Sam Bleakley explains: “When John Callahan came up with the Haiti plan, I knew we should get in touch with my good friend and top Barbados surfer, Zed Layson – www.barbadossurf.com. Zed’s girlfriend, Nathalie Zenny, has Haitian family and their links proved essential. Thanks to John, Zed and Nathalie for making such a radical trip possible.”