11/04/2013 05:44 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:52 EST

Don't Judge Haiti By Its Media Coverage

Don't go to Haiti if you don't like the unpredictable, noise, or rum. Don't go to Haiti if you are uncomfortable with what you don't know, with what you haven't seen, or with what you can't control.

Don't go if you take yourself too seriously.

Go to Haiti if you think flying a small plane over green hills layered over one another like thick cream delights you, if landing in a town that looks like a small New Orleans painted in Crayola colors pleases you, or if driving behind a bus (tap tap) painted with a four foot tall portrait of Celine Dion makes you laugh. Go to Haiti if you want to explore a country that is growing itself back to life, go if you want to get in on the place before it becomes so hip that Monocle writes about it.

Haiti is difficult to describe, and I tried. I was that (possibly annoying) girl who kept saying, ah yes, it reminds me of Jamaica because of its colours and the colour of its people, of Beirut because nothing can keep it down, of Kolkata because of the mad traffic and the way cars, bikes, and people skirt around each other without blinking an eye, using their horns used instead of brakes.

Nobody has time for road rage here -- this country is busy moving forward, not dwelling on what went wrong.

I visited Haiti a few weeks ago, for the 40th birthday of a Haitian friend of mine, along with eight of her (and now my) friends. She is one of a growing number of well-established Haitians who are determined to show the world another side of their island and their culture. There is no doubt that poverty and many other dire issues exist there, or that infrastructure is lacking. But the beauty, the art, the monuments, the food exist too, hidden in plain sight behind the image of Haiti as the battered woman of the Caribbean, to be pitied and donated to.

I had no idea that I would swim in turquoise seas, and eat seafood that had been caught minutes earlier. No idea that there were forts hidden in the clouds, sitting in the middle of lush green jungles, to be explored on horseback. No idea how sweet coffee that has been roasted by hand tastes.

And I had no idea how strongly my friend and many other Haitians feel about this uneven representation of their island until I posted a picture of a pile of garbage in Port-au-Prince and her brother told me off. It didn't matter that I'd posted dozens of beautiful images of the place -- I had hit a nerve. Haiti is treated like that girl who can't shake the bad reputation she got in high school. "It's so shocking that we should have to document this beauty at all", he said.

I guess he's right: even Rwanda, a country whose earth is soaked with the blood of its recent genocide is written up as a stunning destination for intrepid travellers.

The truth is that Haiti is like it's language, Creole: you don't get it until you try it, speak it, listen to it, immerse yourself in it. All of a sudden the seemingly mismatched words and letters organize themselves into words, and you're in on it.

For now, Haiti is our pity party on TV, in print, in popular culture, but that won't last if more people do what I had the chance to do: go see it for yourself. Because tourism is essential to help Haiti regain its footing.

And what you will discover is this: everything you've read about Haiti is true, and none of it is.