Day four of our tour of Haiti courtesy of Undiscovered Destination
I am up early and make my way down to the terrace overlooking the ocean. It is a lovely, peaceful morning: the waves crash in over the rugged rocks; birds flit about in the sunshine (including a hummingbird which I unfortunately am not quick enough to capture on camera); trees are laden heavily with mangoes; bougainvillea and hibiscus vie for attention with other brightly coloured blooms; lizards scamper up tree trunks on their tiny legs, pausing to check for danger; fishermen look for their first catch of the day. Pure unadulterated bliss.
Or at least it would be tranquil and harmonious if it wasn't for the shrieking kids in the pool! Enough said.
We meet Michel, our guide for the walking tour of Jacmel, at the famed Hotel Florita, probably the most well known of the 'gingerbread' houses in Jacmal (and one of the best known hotels in Haiti).
As well as Xiomara, Dawn, Ines, Paula and Daniel (and their body guard Jean Marc) – and of course Jacqui – from last night, we are joined by Jenis and Andrew: more 'real tourists' from London. They are all lovely people, and we thoroughly enjoy their company, but sightseeing in a group reminds me why we book private tours these days: some people chat, everyone wants to take photos of the same thing, It is often difficult to hear what the guide says, and I always get left behind as I want to listen to the explanations and make notes, then take photos. By then the guide has usually moved on to the next stop and started to point out other things of interest. I find group walks to be too rushed for that reason.
Anyway, back to the Hotel Florita, which was built in 1888 for one of the rich coffee traders (at that time Jacmel was the richest town in Haiti) with the ground floor acting as their office and the two stories above being the accommodation for the family.
Today, of course, they offer a place for weary tourists to put their heads down. One of the many benefits of having a local guide, is being able to walk around hotels like this, seeing the bedrooms, balconies and other parts that a casual visitor would rarely get to observe.
Where the restaurant is now, is where the coffee was stored in the old days.
In the courtyard was the kitchen and servants quarters.
Seeing the scales on one of the balconies puzzles me at first (they weigh their guests?), until I put two and two together and remembered this was a coffee warehouse...
In the 1950s Hotel Florita was abandoned after a downturn in the market and the owners moved to Port au Prince. A decade later, the building was bought by an American art dealer, Selden Rodman, who kept it for 20 years, running his art gallery from there. There is still a very nice craft shop here.
It was converted in to a hotel after Jo Cross bought the house in 1989 and thought it would make a good insight into life as a rich coffee merchant in Victorian Haiti.
Hotel Florita is a lovely old lady, craggy and showing signs of her advanced years, but has retained a lot of her beautiful character and delightful details.
Michel explains how these safety boxes in the vestibule once belonged to the National Bank.
I particularly love the staircases.
Les Créations Moro
Across the road from the Hotel Florita, is an art gallery run by the larger than life and excessively flamboyant Moro. By now I am feeling hot, bothered, harassed and a little agitated by the crowds inside the tiny shop . There might only be 12 of us, but we more than fill the showroom. Not being a lover of shopping at the best of times, I escape to a bench in the shade outside, leaving David to choose a couple of masks for us to wear for the carnival tomorrow.
Jacmel is the undisputed handicraft capital of Haiti, famous for its papier-mâché carnival masks. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while, or have visited our house, will know that our living room walls are now almost covered with masks from all corners of the world. Just about to be joined by another one... or two...
David chooses well.
Housed in the French Library is an exhibition of Vodou-inspired art.
I rather like the recycling concept, and two pieces that particularly catch my eye are the 'doll' whose torso is crafted from a camera...
… and this guy with a keyboard slung across his shoulders.
Art Creation Foundation for Children
After the 2010 earthquake, Louisiana-based mosaic artist Laurel True joined forces with the Art Creation Foundation for Children (ACFFC) teaching 'street kids' between the ages of 12 and 22 how to create mosaics. The children, most of whom were orphans, were provided with food, water, education and health care by the charity, while helping to brighten up the city with their art.
Not only did the project provide the children with their basic needs and gave them a purpose with their lives; it also furnished them with practical life skills such as budgeting, design, and team management.
The resulting murals have proved so popular that they have been incorporated into Jacmel's new logo.
The city of Jacmel, including the coffee mansions and the vibrant art scene, has tentatively been accepted as a World Heritage Site candidate, and I hope they make it. The crumbling historical centre has a certain ramshackle sort of charm, like a frail old soldier, full of faded glory - shabby but loved, and not ready to give up the ghost yet. The rickety buildings stand as a reminder, not just of the ravages of nature, but also as a testament to the fortitude of the Haitian people in times of adversity.
After a devastating fire at the end of the 19th century, the town was rebuilt using many pre-fabricated parts - such as cast-iron balconies, pillars, tiles etc – which were shipped over from France. Apparently these mansions were later the influence behind the architecture of New Orleans!
I love the way these mansion look like they are taken straight out of a history book! Many of them are in need of a lick of paint, but to me that adds to the charm.
In recent years, efforts have been made to revitalise the once flourishing cigar and coffee industries, although we see no sign of that on this visit.
Cathédrale de St Phillippe et St Jacques
Built in 1859, the cathedral was heavily damaged by a fire in 1896 and again by the 2010 earthquake, the latter which left the building in a dangerous state. It is no longer in use, although I am told rebuilding work is under way, at the cost of $4 million, using modern technology and engineering which will allow the church to be (almost) earthquake-proof and protect this historically significant cathedral for many years to come.
We peer in through a side window to catch a glimpse of its interior.
Marché de Fer
The building which housed the famous Iron Market was imported from Belgium in 1895, during Jacmel's heyday. This was the commercial hub of Jacmel with throngs of vendors and customers spilling out on to the surrounding streets.
These days it is a sad ramshackle collection of crumbling metal and wood – damaged beyond a quick repair by the earthquake, and like so many structures in this country: it is awaiting rebuilding.
The main plaza in Jacmel, where parades and Easter celebrations take place.
This is where you can find Manoir Alexandre, the home of the fictional Hadriana from the novel 'Hadriana in my dreams'. She was the most beautiful girl in all of Jacmel, and on her wedding day she turned on the steps to wave at all her followers and fell to her death. The story goes on to tell how she wasn't really dead, she'd been turned into a zombie by a witch doctor and escaped to live happily ever after.
The Town Hall is also located on the square.
I know there are two sides to every coin and that not everyone appreciates street art. I personally think – provided it has been done well, like here, and is not just tags/graffiti – that it adds colour and cheeriness to an otherwise grey and dull town scene.
I love the 21st century touch - “Follow me on Twitter”!
Paula is particularly interested to see the closed and dilapidated Plan Haiti offices, as she is heavily involved in this project as part of her role as Canadian ambassador.
Pétion and Bolívar Square
I don't know if it is because of tomorrow's carnival, the fact that it is a Saturday lunchtime, or whether it is always like this, but we find hardly any people about on the streets of Jacmel. Even the Tourist Office is closed.
The square is named after Alexandre Pétion, the first president of the Republic of Haiti, and Simón Bolívar, the revolutionary who was instrumental in liberating South America. Bolívar and Pétion were good mates, and the latter provided Bolívar with 12,000 men for his battle.
This is where Bolivar helped create the Venezuelan flag. A symbolic but tatty flag still hangs here and Haiti continues to celebrate the Venezuelan independence day.
The house where Bolívar lived for a few months in 1816, is marked with a plaque.
It is certainly obvious that preparations for the carnival are well under way, with decorated street furniture, posters, masks and figures leading us to the start point for tomorrow's carnival procession.
Carnival Mask Exhibition
Here we find an exhibition showcasing some of the more popular masks and outfits from the massive selection we will see; complete with brief explanations of what the costumes represent and the story behind them.
Created in 1975 by Sergio Anceon who disguised a donkey with human costumes. Because the people seemed to find this humorous, the tradition has been around ever since.
This disguise represents the physical and psychological status between life and death. It is a mystic belief that is very strong in the Haitian imagination.
The queen of the rara – a band of people who roam the streets during lent.
A band which started to perform in the 1950s in the Jacmel carnival. It was created by Emilien Toussaint, whose son, Charles, directed the group until his death in the 1990s. His disciples still continue the tradition.
Deformation of the name Yahveh, this costume is a satire against the successful merchant Jews of Jacmel by the Bourgeoisie.
Lanceurs de Cordes
Created at the request of the parents of Jacmel who wanted to teach their children to stop bed wetting in the 1940s. Later, in the 1970s, Dieujuste and Masseant were the most important performers for this disguise.
The Errant Jew
Satirical mask against the merchant Jews of Jacmel, created by other Europeans of the community, jealous of their economical success.
Les Feuilles de Banane
Satirical mask against the Bourgeoisie merchants of bananas.
This outfit represents the cruelty of General Charles Oscar who massacred all the political prisoners in the Grande Prison of Port au Prince during the American occupation in 1915.
What amazes me, is the detail in these papier mâché masks. I guess in a poor country such as Haiti, it makes perfect sense to create your carnival outfits out of materials that are cheap and readily available.
Lakou New York
Jacmel's beautiful mosaic promenade, known as Lakou New York, runs along the sea front; snaking its way past bars, shops and restaurants on one side, and the blue ocean with bobbing boats and swaying palm trees on the other.
At another mask shop, Michel shows us how to wear a tiger's head.
I start to follow the others in to the store, but find it is so tiny I start to panic just looking at it, so I stay outside in the shade, photographing some of the local children instead.
Walking around Jacmel was hot and thirsty work this morning, and David rushes to the bar to make sure a cold Prestige is brought to our table.
Ever since we met Jacqui, she has raved about the sautéed lobster here at Cyvadier Plage Hotel. Now, being rather partial to lobster myself, and thoroughly enjoying last night's offering, I don't hesitate to take her recommendation. And yes, Jacqui is right – the lobster is to die for: it is tasty, it melts in your mouth, it has been evicted from its shell and there is plenty of it! Good one Jax!
Dawn invites us to try some of her accra malanga – taro root fritters.
Another one of the local dishes recommended to taste is the pain patate – a sweet potato bread.
We even have time for a siesta before dinner. Unlike this guy, we actually retire to our air conditioned room for a welcome nap.
Tonight we have a special buffet, and Jacqui's group are the honoured guests this evening.
The meal starts off with lobster sliders. Mmm, more lobster!
As well as the salad bar, there is conch curry, mais djon djon (rice cooked in mushroom liquid, with corn), national rice (rice with a bean sauce poured over it), fried plantains, shrimps and dolphin dolmas (dolphin cooked in a banana leaf with orange).
Christophe (the hotel owner) explains the food to us
Before anybody starts getting their knickers in a twist, dolphin in these parts is what we call mahi mahi back home - a fish, not the playful porpoises!
After dinner, Jacqui has arranged for a local folklore group to entertain us. They are a slick troupe who perform two acts, both based on Tcha Tcha vodou ceremonies.
The first act involves appeasing the loa (spirit) with offerings including rhum (which is also consumed I notice) and the creation of a veve, a pattern of cornmeal on the floor.
The drum beats are hypnotic and some the participants shake a rattle as the dancing intensifies until one person becomes obsessed by the loa and falls on the floor. This signifies that his ti bon ange (soul) has left the body and the spirit has taken control.
The second act focusses on honouring the deity of the trees, encouraging any bad spirits or illness to be removed from the body.
This dance has much in common with the vodun ceremony we were lucky enough to witness in Benin a few years ago, except that was a real trance, this is a performance put on for us.
The possessed dancer lies writhing and shaking on the floor, and the other participants smear her body with leaves.
She is cured, helped to her feet and all is well in the world again.
After the dancing, which I have to say, was pretty spectacular and quite intense (despite the fact that it was only a 'performance', not the real thing), we enjoy some cake.
Paula and Xiomara, as part of their duties as Canadian and Panamanian ambassadors, attended a meeting arranged by the Jacmel Tourist Office earlier this evening. They brought back some asson, calabash rattles filled with rattlesnake bones used in vodou ceremonies, and give us a little demonstration.