Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tracing Langston Hughes' Path in Haiti

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tracing Langston Hughes' Path in Haiti

Article excerpt

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti -- There I was, riding in the rear of the tap- tap, this Caribbean country's colorfully painted version of a jitney. It's a small truck with the back cabin gutted out and fused with benches. You tap when you want to board, and you tap-tap when you want to get off. It's cramped and bumpy as we (I am traveling with six other journalists) speed down the asphalt road and the dust blows in my face. I don't care. I am on my way to the nearby Citadelle LaFerrierre, the largest fortress in the Americas.

The black American poet Langston Hughes had come here in the late spring of 1932, where he reveled in communing with the "people without shoes." If he could survive three weeks of torrential rains, a washed-out road and a cold night sleeping on the ground to make the trek up, I could endure 12 miles of breathing in dust.

It would be worth it -- adding another pin-point in my informal pilgrimage of traveling the globe in the footsteps of the poet. So far, I've been to Tokyo, Dakar, Cleveland, Harlem and, closer to home -- McKeesport, where his mother and stepfather once lived and where a youthful Hughes once brought them back a monkey from The Congo.

Now, I was in Haiti. I had ventured through the teeming Port-au- Prince capital city, where Hughes had once wandered to the grand Champs de Mars and saw the U.S. Marines enforce the American occupation and encountered the cultured elite dancing in suits and ties in the sun. He wanted no part of it. He'd rather spend his time getting to know the barefooted Haitian.

This decision fueled his desire to journey to the more remote Cap- Haitien, the valley of the Citadelle on the northern coast of Haiti. Now, my moment had come, too. It was time to figure out how to transcend the mountain and get to this treasured place, recognized as a cultural jewel and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It's as impressive as the pyramids of Giza and the Acropolis of Athens.

It is worth the climb.

When the Citadelle first comes into view, it takes away your breath. It is a handsome, imposing brick and mortar fortress that reigns high atop a green throne of a mountain, with the blue sky its crown. It's a revered and majestic symbol: representing freedom and independence and honoring the slave revolt that chased away Napoleon and made Haiti the Western Hemisphere's first free black nation in 1804.

It's not easy to get to the Citadelle. You can walk, although it's so steep at some points it's like crawling up a ladder. To do so, you have to ascend a vertical twisting 5.5-mile climb, rising some 3,000 feet above sea level. And, remember, you're walking in tropical heat. To get halfway up the mountain, I ride on the back of a motorbike. For the final 2 miles, I do what Hughes did: I take a horse. My attendants -- three chatty locals -- Jimmy, 17; Gabe, 24; and Falo, 18 -- steady me as we go.

I see what Hughes saw: blue ocean and rolling emerald hills; hidden communities of small huts and thatched villages; white clouds and people midnight black. Children naked as nature.

The effusive Chevrolire Jean is our docent. He has sort of imposed himself on our group. He spotted our tap-tap -- and the array of cameras and iPhones aiming out the open back -- as we neared the gateway that leads onto grounds of the Citadelle. He jumped on board, flashing his ID badge. "It's OK. It's OK," he said, as we looked ready to shove him off. "I am official."

Our interpreter confirms he seemed legitimate. Chevrolire is helpful. He arranges for the entry fee, the motorcycle ride and horseback journey. And, whether we want him to or not, he drops tidbits of history.

Even in its crumbling decline, the fortress is awe-inspiring. It covers 108,000 square feet, about the same area of the field at PNC Park. …

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