A Travellerspoint blog

Nairobi - Kilimanjaro - Arusha - Maramboi

Let the next stage of the adventure begin


View The Gowler African Adventure on Grete Howard's travel map.

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After a fitful sleep we drag ourselves out of bed this morning for a 05:00 pick-up for the airport and a day full of security checks ahead.

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The first check comes in the form of a road ‘block’ on the approach road to the airport where the cars are given a once-over while passengers get out and walk through an X-Ray and security screening.

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Security Check # 2 sees our tickets and passports inspected in order to gain entry into the terminal building.

Check # 3 is a conveyor-belt X-ray for all the bags, including the checked-in luggage. Panic sets in when the tray containing my camera and phone is accidentally pushed off the belt by the stuff behind it, and lands upside down on the hard tiled floor. A broken camera on the second day of the trip is the sort of thing I have nightmares about! I take a quick picture of David to check it out, and thankfully it appears to be fully working. Phew.

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Having checked in on line last night for today's flight, the bag drop is fairly painless. Check # 4 = passports.

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In order to be allowed to join the queue for Immigration, we have our passports and boarding cards checked (#5).

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At Immigration, the passports are scanned, fingerprints are taken and we are photographed. (Check # 6) We have now officially left Kenya.

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Consulting the departures board to see which gate we are going from, we are dismayed and somewhat confused to find our flight has been cancelled. Why on earth did the check-in staff not say anything when we dropped our bags off some ten minutes ago?

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We queue for the Kenya Airways Customer Service Desk, and find that the flight has not really been cancelled as such, it has just been combined with a flight to Zanzibar – which means that our flight leaves half an hour earlier than scheduled (and then travels on to Zanzibar).

Customer Services check our passports (#7), and re-issue the boarding cards. When we checked in on line last night we specifically chose left-hand side window seats behind the wing in order to be able to see Mount Kilimanjaro from the air as we come in to land in Tanzania. I ask for similar seats this time too, but am told that it is not possible as the plane is full. Bummer! Mind you, it is very dull and grey today, and quite misty, so I don’t suppose we would be able to see much anyway.

Between the main departures hall and the gate is security check # 8, with all hand luggage X-rayed and a full body scanner. All accessories must be removed, including watches, shoes, belts, glasses and such like.

Not until we reach the departure gate does Chris realise that he has left his watch behind at the scanner. He rushes back to retrieve it. “I left my watch behind” he tells the security officer, pointing to the watch, which is still exactly where he left it. “What does it look like?” the chap asks. “Well…” says Chris, rather bemused by now …”it has a blue and red strap… like that!” gesturing towards the watch. “Oh”, says the security guard, “is this yours?”

Chris arrives back just as we are called forward to go through security check # 9, showing our passports and boarding cards before getting on a bus bound for the plane.

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The cabin crew perform check # 10 (boarding cards) as we enter the plane.

Much to our amusement – and joy – we find we have exactly the same seats as we chose last night when we checked in on line: window seat, left-hand side, just behind the wing.

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There is a low cloud cover some hundred metres or so above the ground, but it is just a thin layer, which we fly above.

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Mount Kilimanjaro’s twin peaks rise majestically above the cloud cover. At 4,877 metres, it is the highest mountain in Africa and very popular amongst climbers.

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The next peak we spot is Mount Meru, a 4,562 metre high dormant volcano, which is believed by some to be the point where Noah’s Ark came to rest as the flood receded. There is no sign of the Ark today.

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From the sunny skies above the clouds, we descend into the thick pea-soup layer where we can hardly see the tip of the wing. A very strange sensation indeed.

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Soon we are through to the other side of the clouds and ready to land at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania.

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Two more checks (passport and customs – numbers 11 and 12!) and we are finally in Tanzania! After all the warnings we received about immunisations, none of us are asked about our Yellow Fever certificate!

As I said before, our flight left half an hour earlier than scheduled, and it is a larger plane than the original - thus faster, which means we arrive some 45 minutes before ETA and there is no one there to greet us. We are not alone as we wait outside the terminal building for our driver.

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A huge dung beetle causes some amusement amongst the waiting passengers, and Chris calls me over, as he knows that this is the item right at the top of my wish list. Pfft. This one is dung-less, that doesn’t count.

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Malisa turns up just as the rain starts, wearing a ready smile that we will come to know and love over the next couple of weeks. Instantly likeable, he seamlessly fits into our ‘family group’ and immediately joins in with our sarcastic sense of humour.

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First stop – the supermarket to stock up on some of life’s little necessities.

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On the one-hour journey from the airport to Arusha, Lyn and Chris take in all the African street scenes that have become so familiar to me over the years. Having safari newbies with us means that I look at these scenes with new eyes as I share their excitement and wonder.

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Carrying milk churns

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Malisa explains that farmers with five cows or fewer don’t tend to send their cattle out to graze, they send their men out to fetch the fodder while the cows stay home.

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Works are in place to make this road into a nice new dual carriageway. It’ll be great when it is finished, but for now the construction causes the usual traffic jams.

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Blue Heron

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At the Blue Heron in Arusha we meet up with Tillya again. He took the bus from Nairobi to Arusha last night, a journey which used to take six to seven hours when we first started coming to Tanzania, but can be done in a speedy three hours now that the new road has finally been completed.

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Blue Heron is run in conjunction with Malaika Children’s Home, a charity that helps local underprivileged children. One of the many things I like about Tillya and Calabash Adventures is that they are very socially and environmentally conscious in their choices of places to visit / stay / eat.

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Chicken Shawarma and Mango Juice seem to be the popular choices for lunch.

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Our lunch is accompanied by a pair of Yellow Bellied Sunbirds.

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After (the very early) lunch we are back on the road, heading for the wilderness and our first safari lodge. A road trip in Africa is always exciting, with many things to see along the side of the road.

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Whistling Acacia

The whistling acacia tree is so called because these brown nodules (they are not fruit, but hollow swellings) have small holes in them (caused by ants) which creates a whistling sound when the wind blows.

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The acacia tree and the ants have a symbiotic relationship, a kind of mutual respect. The tree provides the ants with food by secreting droplets of sweet fluid, and the ants in return protect the tree by attacking anything that tries to eat its leaves. The pheromones given off by the ants act as a warning to giraffes and other animals who then leave the tree alone.

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It's not all lovey-dovey between the two parties though, as the ants also fiercely protect 'their' tree from enemy ant colonies by trimming the branches and flowers of the acacia, which stunts the growth of the tree, killing the tips so the tree cannot propagate itself.

Maasai Manyatta

This is Maasai land we are passing through, and you can tell the number of wives a man has by the number of huts. One hut = one wife. This guy has seven, although some can have up to 20 or more.

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Sisal

A plant in the agave family, sisal yields a stiff fibre used to make a variety of products such as rope, mats, bags, carpets and cloths. I have seen these plants along the side of the road before, but had no idea what they were. I just thought they were a pretty plant.

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I certainly never expected to see camels grazing in the fields. I can’t remember ever seeing camels on previous visits to Tanzania.

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While the rest of us admire the marvels of nature and man, David takes an afternoon nap.

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The road along this stretch has improved beyond all recognition since we first came this way nine years ago. It is now very smooth and comfortable and cuts the travel time between parks considerably.

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Every now and again we get a glimpse of Lake Manyara, the alkaline lake Ernest Hemmingway dubbed “the loveliest in Africa” and whose shores we will be staying by tonight.

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Donkey Cart AKA Maasai Landrover

A local family struggle to get a heavily-laden donkey cart up a slope.

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The more they push, the less willing the donkeys become. Is this where the “stubborn as a mule” expression comes from?

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In the shade of a tree, a group of Maasai village elders hold their weekly meeting.

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I am amused to see that some of them arrived on motorbikes - 21st century Maasai.

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Birds of prey soar above or rest in the trees.

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Pale Tawny Eagle

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Tawny Eagle

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Augur Buzzard

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Pale Tawny Eagle

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Dark Tawny Eagle

This tree is home to a number of weaver birds – notice how they make their nests on the western side of the tree due to the prevailing winds.

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Chestnut Weaver

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Lesser Masked Weaver

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Chestnut Weaver

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Lesser Masked Weaver

Soon we start to see our first wild animals.

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Thomson's Gazelle

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Eland and Zebra

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Zebra

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Wildebeest

The wildebeest are chased by four young Maasai boys, wearing black and with their faces painted. Although they look menacing, the attire merely signifies that they have recently undergone the circumcision ceremony, which takes them from being young boys to becoming feared and respected morans (warriors). The white paint which adorns their faces (you can’t see it very clearly in these photos as they are a long way away) is used to repel any ‘evil eyes’ to help aid their recovery after the operation. Armed only with sticks / bows and arrows, the boys wander alone in the wilderness for three months to prove their manhood.

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Even during the Green Season there is a lot of activity around the waterholes.

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Egyptian Geese

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Great White Egret

At a small settlement we see catfish from Lake Manyara drying.

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While the kid is pleased to see us, the mum is none-too-happy with us taking photos of her dinner, so we make a hasty retreat.

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Impala Harem – one male will have several females. These gazelles are affectionately known as McDonalds after the M shaped markings on their rumps.

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Impala

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Grey Headed Kingfisher

To me there is something even more special about seeing these wild animals along the side of the road rather than in the actual national parks. I know there are no physical boundaries around the parks so that the animals can wander freely between them, but even so…

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Zebra

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Fischer's Sparrow-Lark

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Maramboi

After three hours or so on the road, we reach the turn-off for Maramboi, our home for the next two nights.

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Almost immediately after entering the large grounds of the lodge (it set in an exclusive conservancy area that covers 25,000 hectares and is run by the local Maasai community), we encounter a giraffe right next to the track.

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More follow.

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Magpie Shrike

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Helmeted Guineafowl

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Hibiscus tea - a new experience for me

Check in procedures are interrupted by a group of warthogs walking through the grounds.

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We stayed here at Maramboi a couple of years ago, but at that time we arrived in the dark and left before it got light, so it is really nice to be able to see the lodge in daylight today.

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It is quite a big place, and the main restaurant / bar area is on a raised wooden deck, with views of endless vistas of rolling golden grassland and palm lined desert across to the shores of Lake Manyara and the escarpment of the Rift Valley / Ngorongoro highlands beyond.

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Since our last visit there have been a number of upgrades, such as all new decking/railings, refurbished rooms and a completely new swimming pool area.

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We are shown to our rooms, and we spend some leisure time on the balcony with a drink. There are not many places where you can see giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, impala and a plethora of colourful birds from your private balcony.

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Our room

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View from our balcony

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David with his Savanna

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Beautiful Sunbird

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Common Bulbul

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Female Beautiful Sunbird

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Common Bulbul

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Beautiful Sunbird

Grete & David's Wedding Anniversary

This evening we have a private sundowner by the lake to celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary.

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I set my camera on a tripod, affixing an intervalometer to it so that it will automatically take one photo every 30 seconds until I tell it to stop. That way I can enjoy the sunset, drinks, snacks and company too.

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The sunset is not spectacular, but the ambience, surroundings and company make it very special indeed.

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Flying spoonbills

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We have to be back up at the lodge before daylight fades completely, as it is not safe to wander around the grounds after dark.
As we start to make our way back, it feels wrong to leave the waitress on her own down by the lake, with only an empty bottle of wine to protect herself against wild animals with, so we hang around until the askari (Maasai security guard) can be seen making his way across the plains.

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That, of course, leaves the five of us walking back in the dark with a couple of tripods for protection. All is well that ends well, and we all make it back to the restaurant without incident.

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Dinner

This evening the kitchen is serving a Mongolian BBQ where we choose our vegetables from a buffet and the chefs prepare them, along with our chosen meat, in a large wok. They add various sauces of our choice and finally pasta or rice. The result is absolutely delicious.

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As we finish our meal, a commotion is heard behind us. All the kitchen workers come out singing, with the guy at the end banging a dustbin lid. As you do. They walk around the tables for what seem like an eternity, as if they are not quite sure whose birthday it is. Eventually the cake is placed in front of me!

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So… there is apparently a story behind this cake. Knowing that it is our wedding anniversary today (39 years, how time flies), Lyn wanted to do something special. She saw on the Maramboi website that they do celebration cakes so she contacted them. They replied to say they were very happy to provide a cake but they needed our booking reference. This, of course, is something Lyn doesn't have as we booked the lodge as a package through Calabash Adventures. Lyn then contacted Calabash, and Tillya managed to get this organised for her. Thank you both, it was a lovely thought and helped make the day very special for us.

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The perfect end to another perfect day. Thank you Calabash Adventures for organising this safari for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:45 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds sunset road_trip travel vacation airport holiday africa safari tanzania birding giraffe kilimanjaro glamping arusha bird_watching sundowners tented_camp calabash_adventures which_safari_company best_safari_company maramboi kenya_airways blue_heron Comments (4)

Nairobi

Close encounters with giraffes, elephants, birds, flip flops, history and exotic meats

overcast 24 °C
View The Gowler African Adventure on Grete Howard's travel map.

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As we are enjoying breakfast in the hotel, Tillya (owner of Calabash Adventures) arrives and greets us from behind a huge smile. He has come up from Arusha to personally show us Nairobi today.

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Giraffe Centre

Our first port of call today is the Giraffe Centre, and we arrive nearly half an hour before they open. They kindly let us in early, and we have the place to ourselves apart from one other family.

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Betty Melville founded the Centre in 1979 with the main objective being the breeding of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe whose habitat had been reduced to an 18,000-acre ranch that was slowly being subdivided to resettle squatters. Only 130 animals remained at that time. Betty rescued two of them and founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, a Non-Profit making organisation.

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Following fundraising efforts, 26 breeding giraffes were rescued, rehabilitated and relocated to other parks within Kenya. Since then, the programme has had huge successes, having rescued, hand-reared and released around 500 orphaned giraffes back into the wild since opening.

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The Giraffe Centre is now one of the top tourist attractions in Nairobi, where visitors can come to hand feed the giraffes. And that is exactly what we are doing this morning! Tillya recommended that we arrive at the centre first thing in the morning in order to successfully feed the giraffes – apparently the giraffes are often too full to be bothered to come out for the tourists later in the day!

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Our first close encounter is a pregnant female who is quite happy to be fed but doesn’t like being petted.

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We are encouraged to place specially formulated food pellets in our mouths for the giraffes to grab them with their long tongues, making for some hilarious reactions.

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No one seems to have told the giraffes that it is not 'proper' to do 'tongues on a first date'.

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I am a little concerned that Chris appears to be enjoying the kissing a little too much…

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David, on the other hand, isn’t quite so sure.

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He soon gets into the swing of it, however.

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The ranger assures us that giraffe saliva is antiseptic. That’s OK then…

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It's all good fun!

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After a lovely long snogging session, it’s time for some education. In 1983, conservation also became part of the organisation’s agenda when they opened the environmental education centre. The primary objective here is to provide conservation education for school children and the youth of Kenya and they offer all sorts of free programmes to schools and other youth groups. They also give an interesting and numerous presentation to us tourists about all things giraffe, where we are treated to a very hands-on experience.

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Wild warthogs run freely around the grounds and have a symbiotic relationship with the giraffes – apparently they like to hang out underneath their tall friends in order to snack on giraffe droppings. That brings a whole new meaning to the expression 'friends with benefits'.

Warthogs are said to have small brains, a simple mind and a bad memory. As soon as the giraffes start to run, the warthogs follow; but they will soon forget why they are running.

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They also seem to have a high sex drive...

Nature Trail

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A naturalist guide named Moses takes us on a short nature trail, and explains about the medicinal, poisonous and other plants we see along the way.

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The bark of this tree produces a milky substance, which – if you get it in your eye – will make you go blind. I like Moses' logic: “If you get the milk into your eye, you have two options – you look for running water. If you cannot find running water, you go blind. If you cannot find running water, you look for a lactating mother; and it’s very hard to spot a breastfeeding mother on safari…”

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The Alaeodendron treats syphilis, diarrhoea and bloody cough, but the leaves are poisonous to cattle.

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The sap from the Acokanthera schimperi tree is collected to produce the poison used on hunting arrows. It can also be used to treat syphilis.

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Before we left home, I created a wish list of animals and birds I would like to see on this trip, and one of the items is a chameleon. I'm off to a good start, being able to one tick off on the first day!

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Jackson's Chameleon

These termite mounds appear to have been evacuated, probably because an anteater appeared on the scene, and a snake has moved in. Both aardvark and python are on my wish list, but we see neither.

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David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

We are early for the Elephant Orphanage too, and end up waiting outside for a while.

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Daphne Sheldrick set up David Sheldrick’s Wildlife Trust in memory of her husband after his death in 1977. The trust has played a significant and important role in Kenya's conservation effort, something the Sheldricks had both been heavily involved in prior to the creation of the trust.
Orphaned baby elephants are brought to the centre and are hand raised using Daphne's special baby milk formula - not an easy job. Armed with enormous patience, the staff take on the role of the elephants' mothers, teaching them how to suckle, use their trunks and ears, roll in the dust and bathe.

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The baby elephants are fed every three hours and continue to be mothered up until the age of two, when they are able to feed for themselves; at which stage the slow process of reintegration into the wild begins. This could take up to ten years.

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For an hour each day, the public are allowed in to the orphanage to see the elephants being brought out to feed.

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We stand at the rope waiting for the elephants to arrive, while looking around for other wildlife. A herd of impala wander past, a pin-tailed whydah flitters about and an inquisitive serval causes a bit of a stir.

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One by one the baby elephants start arriving. Slowly at first, then the anticipation of food gets the better of them and the excitement is palpable.

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The baby elephants are adorable, and watching them drink, play and being generally mischievous is an enchanting experience.

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Alamaya

Lyn fosters a baby elephant called Alamaya (a Mother's Day gift from her daughter Kelly). Ravaged by hyenas, Alamaya had lost her tail and suffered severe trauma in the attack, and it wasn't until three months after her rescue, when an operation was performed to help cut away scar tissue which was inhibiting her from urinating, that they discovered that Alamaya was in fact a he. So severe was his injuries when he was rescued from the Masai Mara in neighbouring Kenya two years ago that nothing remained to give the vets any evidence of his genitalia or indication of gender.

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Lyn at the entrance to the sanctuary, showing off her adoption certificate

Kelly chose Alamaya in particular, because the lack of a tail would make him easier for us to spot in amongst all the frolicking baby elephants. His name Alamaya is the Maa (local language) word for 'brave'.

You can read all about Alamaya here and even see the video of her/his rescue.

So, here we stand, looking at the backside of every elephant as they appear from the forest. They all have tails. A little disappointed, we resign ourselves to the fact that Alamaya is one of the elephants not making a public appearance today.

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The last elephant saunters in to the arena, and much to our delight, he is tail-less! This is Lyn's transgender immigrant foster child.

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Seeing Alamaya now, it is hard to imagine what a tough start in life he had!

We have some amazing close encounters with the elephants as they wander up to the single rope fence that divides us from them. What an experience!

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An African Love Story

If you have an interest in African animals and elephants in particular, I would wholeheartedly recommend reading Daphne Sheldrick's autobiography 'An African Love story: Love, Life and Elephants'. I read the book very recently and absolutely loved it. It is an extraordinary story of unconditional love of animals and enormous dedication to conservation. Well worth a read.

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As we leave the centre, Tillya decides he wants to do his bit and become a foster parent to a baby elephant. Here he is with the certificate for his adopted child. Congratulations on your latest offspring Tillya!

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Utamaduni Craft Centre

Utamaduni, which means “culture, tradition and folklore”, consists of a number of individual craft shops, where a portion of the profits supports charities including Street Boys.

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Veranda Restaurant

Our main reason for visiting Utamaduni is to have lunch in its peaceful restaurant on a shaded patio.

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I don't want to fill up too much at lunchtime today, as we are going to Carnivore for an early dinner tonight, so I settle for the melted steak and cheese sandwich.

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After my disappointment finding a lack of birds in our hotel gardens yesterday, the grounds here at Utamaduni more than makes up for it. I spend the entire lunchtime jumping up and down from my seat trying capture some of the feathered inhabitants that flit around the feeders and bird baths.

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Red Billed Firefinch

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Baglafecht Weaver

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Olive Thrush

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Large Golden Weaver

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Dusky Turtle Dove

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Red Billed Firefinch

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Bronze Mannikin

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Reichenow's Weaver

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Marula Studios

In most parts of Africa recycling is not a modern environmentally friendly feel-good concept; it has long been a necessity:
over the years we have seen petrol sold in used glass bottles along the side of the road, children's toys created from whatever is available, old car tyres becoming sandals or a toy for the kids, jewellery made from seeds or ring-pulls, cement sacks turned into clothing, sardine tins reappearing as oil lamps... you get the picture.

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The concept of recycling and upcycling has been taken one step further here at Marula Studios. Started by Julie Johnston after seeing the creative toys produced from plastic waste by the children of Lamu Island off the Kenyan coast; stuff which would otherwise have been an environmental hazard to birds, turtles and other marine life.

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From its humble beginnings in 2005, the enterprise now employs over one hundred women to collect discarded flip-flops (and the now more ubiquitous Crocs - Homer, take note!) dumped or washed up on Kenya's beach resorts.

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Truckloads of odd sandals are transported to the workshop here in Nairobi where the flip-flops are washed, sun-dried, sorted into colour schemes and then glued together to form bigger shapes.

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We are given a private tour of the workshops, with each stage explained to us in detail.

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Washing

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Drying

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Sorting

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Gluing

Using ordinary kitchen knives, the resulting blocks are carved into all sorts of shapes such as animals, toys, ornaments, photo frames, coasters, key chains, Christmas decorations, bottle holders and much more.

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Larger pieces start life with a core of Styrofoam before the flip-flops are affixed.

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Sanding machines add the finishing touches.

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The end products become stunning works of art and are sold here at Marula Studios and exported all over the world.

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To complete the recycling loop, any off-cuts left over from the carving is used for the creation of the soft mats found in children's playgrounds.

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The concept is a simple one, but it benefits the society in many ways:
· Cleaning up the beaches, making them more appealing to locals and tourists
· Preventing birds and marine life from getting sick or dying from ingesting waste
· Creating local employment on the coast as well as in the workshops and studio
· Reducing the amount of waste
· Offering domestic and foreign visitors unique souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home

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These two pieces now happily coexist in their new home in Bristol.

Naturally, exit is through the shop.

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Karen Blixen House

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For those of you old enough to remember the book Out of Africa and subsequent award-winning film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the name Karen Blixen will be familiar. The film provides a vivid snapshot of life in the last decades of the British Empire and some breathtaking scenery shots, although not a true version of Karen's memoirs of the 17 years she spent in Africa.

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On a private tour of the house, the guide tells us all about the history of the house, pointing out the original pieces of furniture from Karen's time and the movie; as well as recounting Karen's Blixen's personal life story.

History of the House

Karen and her husband Bror von Blixen bought the house in 1917 as part of a coffee farm venture in Kenya, which was then called British East Africa. Karen called the house 'Bogani' or 'Mbogani' meaning a house in the woods. When their marriage failed after eight years, Karen continued to run the farm on her own until she returned to Denmark in 1931.

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Later the farm was broken into 20 acre parcels for development by its next owner Remy Marin, who is said to have named the subsequent residential Nairobi suburb Karen after the farm's famous resident.

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For a time the house was only sporadically occupied until the Danish government purchased it in 1964 and presented it to the Kenyan government as an independence gift. After the success of the Out of Africa film in 1985, the government opened the house as a museum. Many pieces of furniture that Karen Blixen sold on her departure were acquired for the shooting of the Out of Africa film, and are now part of the exhibition in the Museum. The architecture is typical of late 19th century, which includes the spacious rooms, verandas, tiled roof and stone construction typical of this period.

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The grounds contain old farm equipment, and from the terrace we can see the famed Ngong Hills, as mentioned in the opening scene from the Out of Africa film:

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills...”

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Karen Blixen's life

Born in Denmark in 1885, Karen entered into a marriage of convenience with her half-cousin Bror van Blixen who promised to buy her a dairy farm in Africa. Bror, however, developed their farm as a coffee plantation instead. The farm fared little better than their marriage - which ended in divorce after hard-drinking womanising Bror infected Karen with syphilis (funnily enough, the guide omits the bit about syphilis in her story) - and was plagued by a number of disasters including fire, repeatedly bad harvests and falling market price for coffee.

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Karen Blixen

After her divorce, Karen fell in love with an English man, Denys Finch Hatton. Tragedies were to follow Karen, however, and after Finch Hatton died in a plane crash in 1930 (he is buried in the Ngong Hills we can see beyond the house), she was forced to return to Denmark where she pursued a career in writing.

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Denys Finch Hatton

Karen died on her family estate in Denmark in 1962 at the age of 77.

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We go back to the hotel for a quick shower and change before Peter – Tillya’s driver – takes us to Carnivore Restaurant for dinner, where we again arrive early, nearly half an hour before they open for dinner. This means we have to sit and have a drink in the bar, oh the horror of it!

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The well-fed and very expectant cat follows us in to the restaurant when we are seated.

Carnivore Restaurant

The Carnivore opened its doors in 1980 to instant success as a strikingly different dining experience to anything previously seen in Kenya. Voted by UK magazine Restaurant to be among the 50 best restaurants in the world in 2002 and 2003 in recognition of the fact that you could dine here on exotic game meats. When we first came here in 2001 (and later in 2006) we were told that they had their own farm where they bred exotic game for the BBQ, and we were served meat such as zebra, warthog and even giraffe!

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In recent years, however, strict new laws mean that zebra, hartebeest, kudu and the like are now off the menu, which is quite ironic as I can buy all those and others in a store less than 20 miles from where we live in Bristol, UK (OK, I have never seen giraffe meat in the shop, but certainly all the others). Exotic meats or not, this is NOT the place to visit with a vegetarian – the Carnivore is a meat speciality restaurant whose motto is 'The Ultimate Beast of a Feast'; not dissimilar to a medieval banquet.

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Tonight's menu

Nyama Choma

This certainly is a BBQ with a difference and not for the light eater – hence my choice of a small lunch earlier. The Carnivore is a rather indulgent ‘Nyama Choma’ (barbecued meat) dining venue where we can sample a variety of local meats roasted over a charcoal fire. Dominating the entrance to the dining room is the spectacular fire pit, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else on our travels. Whole joints of meat – legs of lamb and pork, ostrich, sausages, rumps of beef, spare ribs, chicken wings, kidneys and crocodile steaks are skewered on traditional Maasai spears and roasted over the fire.

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We are shown to our table and the movable feast can begin. Knowing from experience what is about to come, I urge the others not to eat the soup for starters but dive straight into the feeding frenzy of grilled meats.

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When the meat has reached a perfect temperature, an army of carvers carry the full skewers from table to table, carving slices of meat on to our sizzling cast iron plates for as long as we want and as much as we can handle.

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As long as the little white flag on the table is still flying the meats continue to arrive.

As I said earlier, most of the meat these days is of the more mainstream type, but that does not mean there is a lack of variety:

Roast beef
Roast leg of lamb
Roast chicken
Pork sausages
Crocodile
Ostrich
Turkey
Beef sausages
Honey glazed pork ribs
Chicken wings
Lamb chops
Beef ribs
Chicken legs

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Some of the ‘speciality meats' are brought out in little taster-sized morsel on a tray.

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There are chicken livers, spicy lamb sausages, rabbit and bulls’ testicles.

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Yes, you read that right: bull’s testicles. That’s what the small half-an-egg-shaped item is at the front of the plate. Not a strong taste, but it has a somewhat odd texture. Not unpleasant, but not something I would be in a rush to order again. At least I have the balls to try it!

The food is piled on our plates until our stomachs are over-full and the lurking (ever-expanding) cat has devoured any 'accidentally' dropped leftovers. Something tells me we won’t be sleeping well tonight – such an enormous amount of meat on top of this morning’s Larium*** tablets doesn't bode well!

  • ***Larium is a malaria prophylaxis known for its rather unpleasant side effect of psychotic nightmares.

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When we reach the point in this gastronomic overload that even just one more mouthful will send us over the top – we declare defeat and lower the white flag in capitulation.

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Yes, it is fairly pricey; and yes, it is most certainly touristy, with the zebra-aproned waiters’ theatrical ‘performances’ giving it an almost Disneyesque feel; but Carnivore has been an icon amongst tourists, ex-pats and wealthier locals for the last 25 years for a reason. Love it or hate it, I do think visitors to Nairobi should experience this circus-like dining adventure at least once.

Peter takes us back to our hotel for an early night as we have an early start tomorrow.

Thank you Tillya and Calabash Adventures for a great first day in Africa!

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:50 Archived in Kenya Tagged animals birds travel vacation elephants adventure holiday fun africa safari lunch bbq photography kenya giraffe flip_flops charity barbecue crafts kissing nairobi braai recycling bird_watching canon_eos_5d_iii calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators karen_blixen giraffe_centre snogging tongues which_safari_company best_safari_company nature_trail utadamuni marula_studios out_of_africa isak_dinesen carnivore carnivore_restaurant nyama_choma Comments (1)

Birmingham - Dubai - Nairobi

We've finally arrived in Africa!


View The Gowler African Adventure on Grete Howard's travel map.

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As we approach Dubai Airport after seven hours or so in the air, the sun rises and we get a brief glimpse of this modern metropolis from the air.

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On exit from the plane, a series of transfer buses are waiting to take us to the terminal – it’s all very well organised, with a different bus depending on your onward flight destination or whether you are stopping in Dubai. We board a bus for Nairobi. Not literally of course.

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We have a three-hour layover here in Dubai, so we spend a lot of time sitting about in the airport lounge.

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Eventually we are called for the flight and moved to another lounge at the departure gate, where we learn that the flight is delayed for over an hour – more sitting around, waiting.

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The next flight is also very comfortable, with space to spread out. I spend most of the time sleeping, only waking for food and again just before landing at Nairobi.

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At the immigration control in Nairobi, David is berated for having a Transfer Visa and is told that he should have a ‘proper’ visa if he is to leave the airport and stay overnight. This, of course, is quite contrary to the information on the Kenya Immigration Website, and the three of us go through the passport check without a single comment. David must have got the grumpy one this afternoon. Thankfully he is let through and we have finally arrived in Africa!

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The luggage is very slow to turn up, and as more and more bags arrive but ours are nowhere to be seen, we start to get a little twitchy. Eventually the last one appears on the luggage carousel and we breathe a sigh of relief. I suppose someone’s bag has to be the last one.

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At customs I am questioned at length about commercial filming due to all my camera equipment, but we finally make it through to the outside world, where William is waiting to take us to our hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

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As usual, the Nairobi traffic is appalling despite the fact that we are not even entering the centre of town, and we sit in one huge jam as the road improvement works causes major diversions and delays as we make our way to the suburb of Karen. Eight months ago when we came this way on the way back from Lake Turkana, the road was pot-holed, rutted and chock-a-block with traffic. It is comforting in a way to see that some things never change.

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As we pull up at the hotel, we are delighted to see our friend Abdi, who has travelled down from North Horr to meet up with us.

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Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Restaurant and Cottages

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Tillya (of Calabash Adventures) came out to Nairobi last month to personally check out our rooms here at Karen Blixen Cottages, and as we are shown to our room, we concur that he has made a good choice.

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Each room is set in an individual period-style cottage designed after the historic Swedo House in the so-called first generation style , and comes complete with a four-poster bed, a seating area with a fireplace, high-beam ceiling, a dressing room and a large bathroom with separate shower, toilet and bathtub. There is also a nice verandah (with a very friendly resident cat) for relaxing with a pre-dinner drink. The room evokes a taste of the past with yesteryear historic ambience from Kenya's early pioneering days.

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History

Much history is attached to this place - Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Restaurant and Cottages (that is the longest hotel name we have come across since the 'Best Western Premier Amaranth Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel' in Thailand) is set in one of the largest and oldest formal gardens in Kenya, in what was once the estate of Karen Blixen (the author of the best selling book 'Out of Africa' which was later made in to an award-winning film).

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Meandering paths lead through the gardens, connecting the cottages with the main buildings, gym and swimming pool. It is hard to imagine how the original house was surrounded by indigenous forest, bush and grasslands at the time of its construction in 1906 – the 5½ acres of formal hotel gardens are now full of ornamental trees such as candelabra cactus, jacaranda (my favourite tree when in bloom) and bottle brush, as well as numerous (over 200 species I am told) exotic flowers.

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I am a little disappointed however, with the lack of bird life – I expected the flowers to attract a number of birds, but all I see is this ‘measly’ little sunbird.

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Swedo House

This building within the grounds was once the hunting lodge, and the farm manager's residence for Karen Blixen's coffee farm. Later Thomas Dinesen (Karen Blixen's brother) lived in this house, and Karen herself also spent a great deal of time here. It has since been refurbished to its original style.

The architectural style of Swedo House is typical of the pioneering days of Kenya, being built on stilts with the original walls of corrugated iron lined with wood inside; and sporting raised verandas with arched roof supports. The corrugated iron walls were later replaced by cement plastered over chicken wire. These days the house contains the lounge and gift shop.

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Meaning ‘medicine’ or ‘magic potion’ in Swahili, Dawa is the signature cocktail at Tamarind (the chain which owns the hotel restaurant). Based on the famous Brazilian Caipirinha, the cocktail it is made from vodka, sugar, quartered lime, ice and honey, and is apparently one of the most widely consumed cocktails in Kenya. As I really don’t like honey, I didn’t think I’d like it. I was wrong. The honey is served on the little wooden stick in the glass, and just tastes sweet rather than a strong honey taste.

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The curiously named Elephant Mudbath cocktail is a must as we are going to be visiting the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in the morning. The cocktail comprises of coffee liqueur, Amarula, Vodka and ice. A little drop of heaven in a glass!

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To go with the cocktails, an amuse bouche of chilli chicken and crab cocktail arrives.

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The chicken is surprisingly bland, whereas the crab cocktail is nicely spiced and absolutely delicious.

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At dinner I practise the little bit of Swahili I have tried to learn in the last few weeks, much to the amusement and delight of the staff.
“Nataka chakula cha kiafrika” (I would like African food) I ask, and John, the waiter, suggests the Chicken Ndogo Ndogo, a whole spring chicken grilled with ginger, soy sauce, garlic and lime juice.

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Ndogo ndogo apparently means “young lady” or "nice thighs" in Swahili, and a few slightly risqué comments are banded about.

I ask for the chicken to be served kali (spicy), but instead they include a selection of pili pili (chillies), hot sauce and freshly chopped coriander. The chillies certainly pack a powerful punch!

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To go with my chicken I order ugali – the staple food throughout East Africa – a stiff polenta-like dough made from millet flour and water.

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Chris settles for the Fish with Mushrooms, a fillet of fish topped with mirin-flamed mushrooms and served with fried rice and creamy champagne sauce. From the contented murmurs and delighted exclamations, I am deducting that he is enjoying it.

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My request “tafadhali nakata nne bia Tusker baridi” gets us exactly what we want – four cold Tusker beers! This Swahili-speaking lark sure is fun!

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At the beginning of the meal John (the waiter) asks Chris to write down all our names on a sheet of paper, and from then on he calls us by name as he dishes up our food. Very personal service indeed. I am even more impressed when the dessert is delivered. Only David orders a pudding – crepe suzette – but the rest of us get complimentary petit fours, beautifully served on personalised plated with a Swahili saying and our names written out in chocolate! This certainly is a first for me!

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As we leave the restaurant, the serenade of the frogs in the grounds is almost deafening as you can hear from this little video. There is no picture as such as it is pitch black by now, but it is worth a listen for the sound alone.

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Having travelled for 24 hours through the night to get here, jetlag descends on us after dinner and we retire to bed for an early night.

Thank you Calabash Adventures for a great start to our trip!

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:00 Archived in Kenya Tagged food fish restaurant travel vacation flight holiday fun africa safari packing chicken dubai karen kenya cocktails emirates birmingham gourmet nairobi good_food tamarind african_food calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators karen_blixen_coffee_gardens_and karen_blixen dawa_cocktail dawa Comments (1)

Bristol - Birmingham - Dubai

Let the adventure begin


View The Gowler African Adventure on Grete Howard's travel map.

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The day has finally arrived! After weeks and months of planning, we are off on the Great African Adventure with our friends Lyn and Chris.

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Thankfully Chris drives an estate car, which means we can get all four plus luggage into the one car. Unfortunately Bruno thinks he is coming too. On our previous trips with Lyn and Chris we have taken Bruno with us (three different canal barge holidays), so it is perhaps not surprising that he expects to be part of the trip this time too.

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It's an excited little gang who leave Bristol for Birmingham Airport

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For convenience and speed, we have chosen valet parking at the airport, and we just pull up in the car park right by the terminal building, hand over the car keys for someone else to park, and head for the check in.

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I am not saying we are keen, but we end up first in the queue before they even open the check-in desks!

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We sail through the Fast Track security lane and head straight for the executive lounge.

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With free food and drink, we start the trip the way we intend to carry on. There is a self-service salad and pastry bar, a menu to choose hot items from, and a well stocked bar.

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The food is fresh and tasty, although the portions aren't very big. But then we don't really want to be digesting a massive meal on our flight.

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Fish finger sandwiches! Mmmm

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It’s a very relaxing way to start this adventure, and we stay there until our flight is called.

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At the gate departure lounge, Chris spots a bag on the seat next to him which doesn't seem to belong to anybody. Having asked around the people in the immediate vicinity, he reports it to the airline staff, who are quick to react.

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It turns out the bag belongs to a chap who is standing by the window the other side of the room, too busy chatting on his phone to notice the commotion his bag is causing. The official loudly berates him for leaving his luggage unattended, and all is safe and well in our world again.

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Much to our delight, the flight is not full, and we are able to spread out, taking a whole row of seats each. This is Lyn and Chris’s first long haul flight – I hope they realise that having room to spread like this is the exception rather than the rule!

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I ask one of the crew members to take a photo of us all, chatting about the adventure we are about to embark on.
Soon the air stewardess comes back with a Polaroid camera, snapping us (and other passengers) and creating a very nice little personalised memento from it.

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All in all Emirates are a great airline to travel with, and we have a very enjoyable flight, with good food (in fact Chris reckons this is the best air-plane food he has ever had!) and plenty of drink.

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Tandoori chicken - very tasty!

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Two bottles of whisky - Lyn's happy!

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Although no Captain Morgan, Grete is happy too!

After dinner, the cabin lights are dimmed, with little ceiling lights creating the impression of a starry sky, as I settle down with the free wifi and the others watch live football on the TV screens.

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Shame the football results aren’t as good.

Just another five hours to go...

Posted by Grete Howard 01:12 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged travel vacation flight holiday fun africa safari packing emirates birmingham Comments (2)

The Gowler African Adventure 2016

We're ready for Africa, but is Africa ready for us?

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Planning

Not since our Around-the-World trip in 2002 has so much planning and so much anticipation gone in to a holiday. So why is this one so special? Several years ago my very good friend Lyn said to me that one day she wanted me to help her arrange an African safari. Well, that 'one day' finally arrived.

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I really want Lyn and Chris to have an extra special safari experience, as this is their very first safari, first time in sub-Saharan Africa, first time in the Southern Hemisphere and first long-haul holiday. It is also their first experience of a tailor made private tour.


So how can we make it special?

Enter Calabash African Adventures:

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Why Tanzania and why Calabash?

There are an almost infinite number of tour operators who will design a bespoke African safari, so why have I chosen Calabash? I first became aware of them some years ago when they replied to question a in the Tanzania Forum on Virtual Tourist at the time I was researching a safari. I contacted them for a quote and they came back to me with an itinerary that fitted my plans and a price well within my budget. The safari, taking in all four of the northern parks in Tanzania, was amazing, and Calabash more than lived up to our expectations in every way.

That was 2007. Compared with other safari destinations in Africa (we have been lucky enough to have been on a number of safaris to a number of different parks in a number of different countries over a number of years), we have found Northern Tanzania to be far superior, in particular as far as the wilderness experience goes. So we went back in 2011. And in 2014. And now we are taking our fourth Tanzanian safari – all arranged by Calabash of course.

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A safari in Tanzania is far from a cheap holiday, with the cost of accommodation in the wilderness starting at around £100 per person per night, and prices exceeding £1000 per person for sleeping in a (luxury) tent not being unusual (as you can see from the screen print below from one of the big safari operators).

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In an attempt to maximise our hard earned holiday savings, Tillya (of Calabash Adventures) suggested travelling at the end of the 'Green Season' when prices are lower, the grass is greener and there are fewer people. The only problem is, of course, this time of year is called the 'Green Season' for a reason... it may rain. A lot.

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We have been closely monitoring the weather forecasts, and keeping fingers crossed that at least the heavy rains will have finished by the time we arrive. Having taken safaris in Africa previously in the Green Season and not been particularly hampered by the rain, we are hoping that it won't be too much of a dampener (pun intended) this time either. At least it should make for some atmospheric scenery shots. Watch this space!

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Many an enjoyable evening has been spent during the planning stage of this trip, with African food and wine, while discussing itineraries, photography and packing.

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Other aspects of the preparations, however, have not been quite so pleasurable.

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A number of immunisations – as well as malaria prophylaxis - is required for all four of us, although David and I thankfully had the benefit of some of the vaccinations still being valid from previous trips. We spent an entertaining afternoon at Nomad Travel Clinic in Park Street in Bristol, being advised on all things travel-health related by a delightful nurse called Helen, who shared our slightly warped sense of humour.

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Although theoretically Tanzania requires you to produce a Yellow fever immunisation certificate if you are arriving from an infected country (in our case Kenya), we have travelled to the country three times in the past via Nairobi and never been asked for the certificate. I have heard, however, about travellers who have been stopped, fined ($300) and immunised on the spot, so it is not worth taking the risk. Not that we would ever consider opting out of any recommended vaccinations.

VISAS

Both Kenya and Tanzania require travellers to obtain a visa before entering the country. Kenya no longer issue visa on arrival, but their website is easy and user friendly. Or so I thought - David and I applied for an online visa last year when we visited Lake Turkana. As the two of us already have an account, it was just a matter of completing the personal details, information about this trip and any previous visits; and attach our itinerary, flight tickets, photograph and scanned copy of our passports.

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There are several agencies on line who will offer to arrange your visa for you - for a fee of course. While we sometimes use their services for some of the more obscure countries we visit, for Kenya (or Tanzania) this really isn't necessary. The money we saved will go towards a drink or five in Africa.

For visits up to 72 hours, you are entitled to enter on a transit visa, providing you are continuing to another East African country; and the issue of our Transit Visa was instant. Success.

So... I try to do the same for Lyn and Chris, setting them up with a Kenyan evisa account using their own existing email addresses. So far so good. A message pops up on my screen saying that an email has been sent with a link which they need to click on to confirm the address. No problem, I ring Lyn and let her know to look out for it. No email received their end. We wait half an hour. They still have no email. We try using a different email address for Lyn. Still no email from Kenyan High Commission. What to do now? I am guessing a firewall on their Sky account has stopped the emails reaching them, so it is time to put my thinking cap on. As a last resort, I try creating a new Outlook account for each of them on my PC, and this actually works! I receive the necessary link, carry out the confirmation 'click' and we're in business! Lyn and Chris also have Kenyan Visas! The applications have only taken me five-and-a-half hours! And that's just the Kenya ones!

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To obtain a Tanzanian visa, we need to download applications from their website, send off with the passports to their High Commission in London. No big deal, and in 2014 (our last visit to Tanzania), the passports took just over a week to come back, although the website only actually suggests to allow 3 working days for the process. Or at least it did last time I looked, a couple of months ago.

So imagine my horror when I casually glance at it now, and find that a new message has suddenly appeared: Apply 4-6 weeks prior to your departure date! Eeeek! Our trip is just over four weeks away, so I guess we ought to get a move-on with those!

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With the fee paid in cash to the Tanzanian High Commission's bank account, David takes the forms, bank receipt and passports to the post office on Saturday morning and send them off registered delivery. To our surprise, we get them back on the following Wednesday! So much for the 4-6 weeks and the mad panic, they didn't even take four days!

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We are now good to go! Almost.

Paying the balance of the holiday

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It's just a few minor issues to tie up now, such as paying the balance of the safari to Calabash Adventures. Priced in US dollars, the cost of the ground arrangements in Africa is dependent on the exchange rate, which is not particularly good at the moment. On our previous safaris organised by Calabash, we have paid the deposit by bank transfer, then the balance by cash on arrival. We do not really want to do that this time, for a couple of reasons – the amount is considerably more than it has been on previous occasions (longer and more involved trip, as well as being for four people rather than just two of course), and we are spending a couple of nights in Nairobi before arriving in Tanzania, so we don't really want to carry that amount of cash with us.

To cut a long story short, I gave David the task of searching for alternative ways of paying the bill, and he came up trumps in the form of a company called Currencies Direct, which seemed to offer the best rate. We have always transferred money through our regular bank in the past to pay for ground arrangements abroad, but the lower exchange rate through the bank, plus bank fees made a difference of nearly £300 more that of Currencies Direct. That is an awful lot of of rums for me, and whisky for Lyn (never mind beer for the boys).

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The process was simple. David opened an account, they checked him out to ensure he was a bona fida customer, and we were in business. After a couple of 'due diligence' compliance checks, the money was transferred to Calabash's account in Arusha. Simple, cheap, efficient. Now looking forward to a cocktail or five with the saved money!

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Countdown

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So, the countdown has begun, with each day marked off the calendar. Of course, in this electronic age, it is all done on the phone!

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So, what's left to do?

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Ordering foreign currency

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Getting our nails done. Mine are a nice turquoise, while Lyn has decided to blend in with the natives. Or not. I hope it doesn't scare the animals. David and Chris have decided to leave theirs au naturel.

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And of course...

Packing

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While keeping clothing and toiletries to a minimum is easy, travelling light is impossible for a photographer. It is not just the cameras and lenses; tripods and window clamps; batteries and chargers; flash guns and accessories, plus numerous memory cards that takes up space of course - it's all the other stuff too. OK, so I admit I am a gadget freak, but I do enjoy playing around creatively with filters, intervalometers, motion sensors and such like. The only item from this photo that I won't be taking is the high-viz vest. Not a good idea in the bush - we are trying to attract the animals, not scare them!

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It's strange really. I can't wait to go, can't wait to be there, see the sights, smell the air, taste the food and just drink in the atmosphere. And take lots of photographs, of course.

Yet, I don't want to go. I want to stop time right now as the excitement I feel at this moment is electrifying. It's tangible, it's giving me such a delirious high. I want to feel this intoxicated on excitement forever...

And then it's those "what if it doesn't live up to the expectations?" feelings. Perhaps it is better to just have the buzz of the anticipation than the real thing...

Then I give myself a virtual slap and a good talking to: "These are the most blatant First World Problems Grete! Stop overthinking it and just appreciate that you are in a position to be able to do this. Go forth and enjoy!"

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As we're off to fulfil our Out-of-Africa fantasy and make extraordinary and life-long memories for ourselves and our good friends, I will just leave you with this poster we bought in Kenya on our very first safari in 1986 - if you study it carefully you will see so many scenarios epitomising African safaris.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:09 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

Port au Prince - Atlanta - London - Bristol

Homeward bound


View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

05:00 is way too early for my liking, but I prefer to have plenty of time to get ready. Today is departure day and Geffrard is picking us up at 06:15. He is early and we make it to the airport in no time.

The whole airport experience is a bit of a palaver. Uncharacteristically, we allow a porter to take out bags from the car to check in, and tip him accordingly. He lingers, consistently demanding a “tip for my supervisor” Really?

Suspecting previous experience is to blame for the pre-check-in checks in the departure hall, we are not surprised when a Haitian couple are unable to produce a green card or visa for the US, pretending not to understand the questions posed to them and thus holding up the queue.

In the queue for security, I chat to the Canadian UN security worker in front of me, whose alcohol-breath poses a real fire risk. She gets stopped by the officials – I wonder why...

I am not sure whether it is the Haitian authorities or Delta Airlines whose paranoia leads to the sheer number of checks:

Pre-check in checks: US visa / ESTA / Green Card
Check in – tickets / pre-printed boarding cards / passport
Bag drop – boarding cards
Security – boarding cards, shoes off, x-ray
Immigration – passports, boarding cards
Another check – boarding cards scanned
Second security – boarding cards check, manual bag check, body pat down
Boarding gate – boarding cards and passports
On entering the plane – boarding cards

Finally we board our Atlanta bound plane, and find ourselves surrounded by a large group of Pennsylvania Dutch. Are they Amish? Mennonites? Quakers? I admit my ignorance at not knowing the difference. They are all in plain dress, with the women wearing mostly matching pale blue gingham-checked floor-length dresses, a white bonnet covering their hair and make-up less faces devoid of any smile or outward sign of joy. The men – mostly young lads – nearly all look alike which makes me think they are possibly brothers or even one large family. They speak some variation of German amongst themselves, and English to the crew. As the plane starts to taxi, the sound of two dozen passengers quietly singing hymns emits from all around us in the cabin. In all the 650 or so flights we have taken, this is a first!

Leaving Haiti we head due north, initially over the mountainous interior, then later we have great views of Turks and Caicos islands from the plane.

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After a beautiful start, we soon hit clouds and experience some pretty severe turbulence, eliciting loud gasps and even screams from the passengers.

Atlanta

More officialdom on our arrival in the US of A. The self serve immigration desks scan our passports and take our fingerprints, giving me a green light and the go-ahead to enter the country, but David gets a cross and a referral again. They obviously don't like his passport, as the same thing happened on the way out.

The guy in front of us at the queue for the manual immigration also has problems, and requires a Creole translator. We swap queues and are in luck: an immigration official with a sense of humour, joking that David Howard is a common name. "Less of the common please, I like to think it is popular" quips David.

In most other countries when you are in transit, you literally arrive in the departure hall and remain there until your flight is called and you go to the gate. Not so the US. The hand luggage goes through an X-ray while we have to remove our shoes and go through the complete body scanners, followed by a manual pat down.

We collect the luggage and exit through a security check where we hand in the print out from the self check-in in Port au Prince. The luggage then has to be re-checked-in at the desk. Fortunately there is no queue here, and the lady behind the counter takes a shine to my accent, making me repeat the short sentence “It is” again and again. OK......

One more check of the boarding card and passport, then through another body scanner, then we are back in the departure lounge. We check the information board for details of our next flight – I never get used to the unique way flights are displayed in the US – in alphabetical order rather than chronological like in the rest of the world.

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Ecco Restaurant
Having five hours to kill, we want to sit down for a proper meal, being served by a waiter (or waitress), rather than grab a quick bite to eat at a fast food place. The general manager shows us to our table, and starts chatting. Finding that we are on the same wavelength, we and up talking to him for half an hour or more, covering a number of subjects, including politics, travel, culture and languages.

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David is delighted to find they serve cider

The pizzas are very nice, but nothing exceptional and the wine is expensive even though we choose the second cheapest on the menu. . After a couple of desserts and two coffees each, we are totally shocked to find the bill comes to $160! That is by far the most expensive pizza I have ever had. I check and re-check the bill against the menu, but find it is correct, and leave the restaurant with a sour taste in my mouth (and it wasn't the wine).

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The setting sun is just above the horizon as we taxi out to the runway at Atlanta for our flight back to London Heathrow.

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The rest of the journey home is totally uneventful, and in the car on the way back from the airport in the UK, I reflect on airline security checks. On our journey from Haiti to the UK, my passport was checked nine times, boarding card eleven times. My hand luggage went through three x-rays and one manual check. I had two X-rays, two full body scans and two manual pat downs, as well as having to take my shoes off twice. It's good to know we are safe.

Welcome home.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:58 Archived in USA Tagged sunset travel flight usa security pizza expensive virgin airline passport atlanta luggage heathrow aiport delta immigration haiti rip_off ecco security_check ecco_restaurant Comments (1)

Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

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View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

Darkness still hangs over the Caribbean as we go for breakfast this morning, later replaced by an aspiring sunrise which never really amounts to anything.

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In the distant twilight we spot the Anthem of the Seas – The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship - heading for Labadee so that its passengers can spend the day on the beach.

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In the time it takes the ship to make its way across our horizon, twilight has almost been pushed aside by daylight, showing the ship in all its glory. I reluctantly admit that it does look impressive, at least from this distance.

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The sun is still low as we are driven to the airport for our return journey to the capital.

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Arriving at the airport, my heart sinks when I see the long queue of people - complete with huge amounts of luggage - waiting to check in; and when I realise that even the passengers are being weighed ready for the flight, the aforementioned heart plunges further into my stomach. I am therefore immensely relieved when Serge walks past the queue to another check in desk - the poor people heading for the humiliation of having their weight recorded are travelling to one of the outlying islands, not Port au Prince. Phew!

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Pimp my Truck

In Port au Prince Geffrard awaits us, now like an old friend, navigating his way through the morning traffic; all of which is infinitely more colourful and enriched than our min-van.

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Literally meaning 'quick quick', these buses – known as tap-taps, follow fixed routes, but not a timetable – they leave whenever they are full. That is full according to Haitian standards, not European, with passengers often hanging on the back or even sitting on the roof! There are no fixed bus-stops, the passengers knock the roof when they want to alight.

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They are mostly pick-up trucks which have been lovingly home welded and garishly decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.

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Often painted with religious names or slogans, portraits of famous people, and intricate, hand-cut wooden window covers, the ubiquitous tap-taps are unique to Haiti.

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Musée Canne à Sucre

Although it is not far from Port au Prince airport, by the time we reach the museum I am feeling decidedly weary. The sun is shining relentlessly, and it's already very hot - I always suffers from the effects of dehydration quite quickly - and severely - and I suspect I have not taken in enough liquids this morning.

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All I want to do is sit down, in the shade somewhere, with a cool drink. Instead we are introduced to the guide who will show us around the museum.

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The first room displays a brief chronicle of Haiti's history, from the Taino Indians through to Victorian times.

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Taino artefacts

I feel listless and disinterested, which isn't at all like me. Normally I love museums, and soak up every word the guides say, but this morning I find myself wandering around the displays aimlessly, not really taking any notice of the explanations offered.

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The museum has the appearance of a haphazard collection of random items, situated in someone's living room.

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Slavery
The second room focuses on slavery, revolution and black history in Haiti. If there is such a human trait as having too much empathy, then I suffer from this condition. Looking at the impassioned illustrations displayed, my mind immediately wants to try and imagine how I would feel if I was in that situation. Damn emotions... STOP IT! If I was indifferent to the exhibits earlier, I now find myself getting quite distraught at the thought of man's inhumanity to man.

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Seeing Haiti today, it is hard to believe that it was once the wealthiest overseas colony in the French empire! However, economic success came at a cost - Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

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Map showing where the slaves came from

Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave once they arrived on Haiti was 7 years. Essentially, the owners worked their slaves to death and then just bought more slaves. Those who tried to run away were severely punished and by 1789, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti.

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Cut-away model of slave ship shows the conditions the slaves were transported across the Atlantic under. Goods at the bottom, people on the middle deck.

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Some of the gruesome ways the slave masters kept their 'workers' in check. It doesn't even bear thinking about how cruelly these people were treated. I find it impossible to imagine how someone would have the mentality it would take to dish out that sort of punishment to another human being, and the fact that it was not just isolated incidents, it was considered the norm.

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Once they arrived in Haiti, slaves were divided into different categories: domestic help, overseers, agricultural workers and those involved in the sugar cane industry.

Revolution
Inspired by the French Revolution, the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) is the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and makes Haiti the only country where slave freedom was taken by force. A bedraggled group of slaves organised themselves, held a vodou ceremony calling for their liberty and went out with a guerilla war to defeat Europe’s most powerful army.

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Plantations were taken by force, or by using more subtle methods, such as poisoning their masters.

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In 1804, Haiti went on to become the first independent nation in Latin America; it is the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere (after the US); and the oldest black republic in the world. The three main players in the fight for Haiti's liberty were Jean Jaques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.

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Set in the grounds of the ruined old sugar plantation Habitation Chauteaublond, the museum courtyard features a collection of antiquated material relating to the sugar cane industry.

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17th century water mill, brought over from England, was used to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

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The guide turns the water on for us to show the wheel in operation. As we are the only people in the museum, it makes sense not to have the mill running continuously.

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As well as hydro-power, animals were used to operate this traction wheel.

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Vats for boiling the sugar cane to make molasses for export to Europe where it would be fermented to make rum.

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Belonging to the Haitian American Sugar Company, S.A. (HASCO), this – the first train in Haiti – was used for transporting sugar cane from the fields to the processing plants.

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Relais de Chateaublond Restaurant
Although the gorgeous on-site restaurant is famous for its selection of flavoured rums (such as passion fruit, anise and various herbs), we stick to Diet Coke with our lunch.

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Croix des Bouquets

In the suburb of Noailles is the commune of Croix des Bouquets, famed for its metalwork artisans. The flamboyant movement of recycling metal into art was started some 60 years ago and today there are over 1,000 artisans working in Croix des Bouquetes, hammering away to create intricate masks and other wall hangings from discarded oil drums, car parts and even kitchen utensils.

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We visit the workshop of Jacques Eugene, a renowned artist who was born here in Croix des Bouquetes and now employs several other locals in his studio.

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Like most of the artists, Jacques takes his inspiration from vodou, creating extraordinary wall hangings which are as bizarre (to us) as they are curious.

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Jacques explains the process from the raw material to the finished product: the oil barrel is cut open, burnt and flattened, then a pattern is traced on the surface. The rest is done with a hammer and chisel, metal cutters and artistic skill.

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This handsome mask now hangs proudly in my living room along with the two masks we wore for Jacmel carnival and the one I bought at Milot (well, I had to have something to do while David and Kyle were visiting the Citadelle – that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

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In addition to the intriguing masks, one of the most popular designs for steel drum art is the Tree of Life, a symbolic image with a cultural significance to the people of Haiti. Representing immortality, new life, blessings and fertility, the branches of the tree reach into the sky, while the roots burrow deep into the earth; uniting heaven, earth and the underworld. Having seen several different variations on walls in our hotel rooms as well as restaurants, we are keen to pick one out to bring home.

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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Making our way back to Hotel Le Plaza (again), we are stuck in a traffic jam (again). The cars are completely stationary, and we soon become aware that several cars in front of us make a turn. Serge goes off to investigate what the problem is, and comes back to explain that there was an accident between a car and a motorbike, and all the bystanders have taken the side of the motorcyclist. They then set about beating the car driver, who very wisely retreated to the safety of his vehicle. That didn't stop the mob apparently, and now they are pelting his car with stones. Justice Haitian style!

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We also decide to get out of here before this escalates. That means driving through a 'less-than-salubrious' neighbourhood, and we are advised to close the windows and put the cameras away. So what do I do? Take photos of course...

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With so many cars having turned around to avoid the melee and are now travelling the opposite direction, the traffic is still terribly slow moving, so it's a great relief to finally arrive at the hotel. This being our third visit to Le Plaza in the last week, it's like coming home.

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Feeling awfully jaded and quite unwell by now, I am rather grateful we don't have any plans for the rest of the afternoon; and after re-packing for tomorrow's journey home, we take a siesta. I notice I have the beginnings of a cold sore on my lip, something that causes me some concern after last time I had one, which developed a secondary infection, resulting a several courses of antibiotics.

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When Geffrard turns up to pick us up later, he brings me a gift from Serge: spicy peanut butter! What a wonderful surprise.

This evening we have arranged to meet up with Jacqui (the local agent) and Paul (the Bradt Guidebook writer we met in Jacmel) for dinner. Jacqui has also invited Dawn (she was at the carnival with us too), who is bringing a friend; so it is quite a happy little band who turn up at La Plantation Restaurant in Pétionville.

The cocktails are good, the food is great and the conversation is even better.

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It's a delightful way to end this tour – we have found Haiti to exceed our expectations in every way. This small nation has so much more to offer than the usual Caribbean attractions of sunshine, beaches and sunset cocktails – although it has its fair share of those too! With extremely welcoming people and an intriguing culture, I am already planning my return visit to delve deeper into its vodou customs and celebrations.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:37 Archived in Haiti Tagged beaches art planes beach history travel vacation hotel museum caribbean artisans photography cocktails revolution slavery pilot metalwork artists aerial_photography slaves spicy haiti undiscovered_destinations canon_eos_5d_iii voyages-lumiere port-au-prince port_au_prince baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou cap-haïtien haitien_revolution haitien_food haitien_art labadee cormier cap_hatien petionville croix_des_bouquets jacques_eugene sugar_cane haitian_revolution peanut_butter Comments (1)

Cap-Haïtien – Cormier Plage

Chill time!

semi-overcast 29 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day seven of our tour of Haiti by Undiscovered Destinations.

Encouraged by yesterday's bird watching, I get up at the crack of dawn to see if there is any more avian life around the grounds. I spot a couple of the usual suspects, but nothing mindblowingly exciting:

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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Palmchat

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White Necked Crow

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Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Last night we received a text from Jacqui to say she is in Cap-Haïtien this morning on business and would we like to meet for breakfast? Despite her flight being delayed out of Port au Prince, we do have time for a quick catch-up at Hotel Roi Christophe before going our separate ways. To my delight, the hotel serves the legendary spicy Haitian peanut butter. I must get some of this to bring home!

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Cathedrale Notre Dame de Cap-Haïtien

Having been picked up by the driver from our destination hotel, we make a quick stop at Place d'Armes du Cap-Haitien in the centre of town to photograph the recently renovated 18th century cathedral fronted by the modern, well equipped kiddies' playground.

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Labadie

From here the rough and winding road meanders west, hugging the cliffs above the shoreline. Locals have been fighting to get this road modernised and improved (although we see no sign of any work), as the Royal Caribbean cruise ships dock further along the coast. The cruise company has its own beach area here (known as Labadee), and restrictions which forbids the tourists from leaving the private resort have recently been relaxed. The people of Cap-Haïtien are trying their best to get a cut of the tourist dollar by offering tours of the area and enticing foreigners to spend money in local shops and restaurants (and who can blame them?), but the terrible state of the road is putting many people off and making it hard work to get to anywhere. Currently, only a small controlled group of Haitian merchants are given sole rights to sell their merchandise and establish their businesses in the resort (for a fee of course); guarded by a private security force. However, it is not all bad news, as the resort does employ 300 locals and the Royal Caribbean pays the Haitian government $12 per disembarking tourist.

What I do think is a crying shame, is that those tourists do not get to experience the real Haiti; although I guess all they want to do is relax on a beautiful sandy beach and partake in water sports. Controversially, the company continued to dock its luxury cruise ships in the private port immediately after the 2010 earthquake, although they did announced at the time that they would be donating US$1 million to fund relief efforts in Haiti.

Last month, a peaceful but rowdy protest was held here against the upcoming presidential elections in Haiti, blocking the port and causing the Royal Caribbean to temporarily suspend this port stop.

This area and village is called Labadie (whereas the private resort is Labadee), and is named after the marquis de La Badie, a Frenchman who first settled the area in the 17th century.

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View of the coastline

Cormier Plage

We are NOT heading for Labadee thankfully (I can think of few things worse than 3000 cruise tourists in one hermetically manufactured resort) – rather our destination is Cormier Plage Hotel on the beach of the same name.

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“What is going on? The hotel has no food or drink? I am not staying here!” Seeing the sign at the entrance to the hotel, I josh with Serge - it takes him a second or two to get the joke.

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We are shown to our room, which has an unusual split-level layout with a couple of extra beds.The room is large, cool and comfortable, and boasts a terrace – complete with rocking chair - overlooking the grounds and ocean beyond.

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View from the terrace

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Decisions, decision... what to do first? Rocking chair? Hammock? Bar? Swim?

Predictably, the drink wins the day.

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Swimming
It would be improper to leave here without having had a swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean. However, our venture into the sea can be more accurately described as a frolic in the waves than a swim. There is some pretty good surf going on, making it safest and most comfortable to stay in the shallows.

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At least it means I can try out my new selfie-stick with my little waterproof camera. It's not as easy as it looks – least of all because I bought a VERY cheap stick, which means the camera keeps twisting around just at the wrong moment; and without a screen at the front of the camera it is hard to figure out what the result will be like and how much of the intended subject will actually be within the frame.

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It does provide a little light amusement for a while, but I certainly won't be making a habit out of this selfie-taking lark.

Lunch
The food here at Cormier Plage is pleasant but nothing awe-inspiring. David is feeling in need of some traditional comfort food, so orders a double cheeseburger with chips, while I choose something with a little more Caribbean flavour - shrimps creole with rice.

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We're not beach people per se, but we are more than happy to spend a day or two by the ocean. Sunbathing is not our style, but there is something very relaxing about watching the waves from a white, sandy beach, and strolling around the extended leafy gardens with its tropical vegetation, birds and lizards.

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Black Crowned Palm Tanager

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Broad Billed Tody

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Grey Kingbird

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Palmchat

Eureka!
I finally manage to photograph a hummingbird – although not a brilliant picture as it caught me unawares and was there and gone in a flap of a wing - I can safely say my holiday is now complete!

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Hispaniolan Emerald

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The resident cat is on the prowl for an afternoon snack. Lizard is on the menu, but he has to catch it first. He does.

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Thankfully lizards are in plentiful supply here, in the trees and on the walls. I love these little critters who epitomise the tropics for me.

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I thought I heard Danish spoken at lunch, and my suspicions are confirmed when we discover the Danish Consulate in the grounds of the hotel. So... what does a 'day at the office' look like? "Hmmm, spent the morning on a deck chair on the beach, followed by a seafood lunch overlooking the Caribbean, then some emails on my laptop in the beach bar..." What a life! Actually, they probably work very hard and I am only jealous that none of my workplaces were as exotic.

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All this excitement is tiring you know, so David puts his feet up in the rocking chair.

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.

Or should that be hammock?

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"I can hear the sea..." Not surprising after a couple of those potent rum punches!

We are so inspired by these hanging coconut shell lights that we immediately start working out how to incorporate this idea into the refurbishment of our garden gazebo back home. Nothing unusual there, as the last few days of almost every holiday sees David making plans for another home renovation project.

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Dinner
Perusing the menu for dinner, the waiter informs us that they have no fish and no beef. A beach restaurant with no fish? Unbelievable! So that leaves chicken, chicken, chicken or goat. We choose chicken.

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Chicken curry

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Diablo chicken

As the bar (and restaurant) is devoid of any life, we retire to our room instead. We do happen to have a bottle of rum....

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:19 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds sunset beach vacation holiday caribbean hammock palm_trees tropical rum haiti hummingbird undiscovered_destinations rum_punch cap-haïtien carmier_plage labadie labadee cormier Comments (2)

Port au Prince – Cap-Haïtien

Palace Sans Soucie and Citadelle la Ferrière - incredible UNESCO Heritage sites

sunny 32 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our tour of Haiti arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

An early start this morning for our transfer to Aérogare Guy Malary (the domestic airport) for the short flight to Cap-Haïtien. Even at this early hour (we leave the hotel at 06:15), there is quite a lot of traffic on the streets of Port au Prince, with many more people walking to work. One young lad jumps on the ladder at the back of our van to catch a free ride for a while, then knocks on the roof when he wants to be let off.

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There is not much action at the airport – we are supposed to be meeting an American guy called Kyle here, who is joining us for the day. Meanwhile we hang around, eating the packed breakfast provided by the hotel.

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Kyle eventually turns up – his driver took him to the international airport rather than the domestic one, so he had to grab a taxi to bring him here. To add insult to injury, his flight ticket has been cancelled, so he is put on standby. Kyle is very laid back about it all, and we keep our fingers crossed as we watch people arrive in the waiting room. His luck is in - fortunately not all the booked passengers turn up and Kyle is on the flight!

It's only a small plane, and I sit right at the front with a good view of the cockpit. When the pilot arrives, I ask him if he is able to fly over the Citadelle for me to take some photos, and he promises to try.

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My view is restricted by the engine, but I still get a reasonable good look out over the spreading metropolis that is Port au Prince as we take off.

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The urban sprawl soon gives way to mountains as we head north.

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It's only a 30 minute or so flight, and about half way through, the captain beckons me to come forward into the cockpit just as the imposing Citadelle la Fèrriere comes into view, perched spectacularly atop a craggy peak.

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As we pass the fortress, the pilot dips his wing so that we all get a good view, even through the side windows with the engine in the way.

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What a star!

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Sans Souci

From Cap-Haïtien airport we are whisked to Milot, where we meet with Maurice, our local guide.

Sans Souci palace was constructed in 1806 for King Henri Christophe to concentrate all administrative functions of the monarchy around the royal residence. The gates were allocated according to rank – only the king could enter through the middle gates, and the soldiers used the door on the right.

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The building you can see with a domed roof, is a catholic church.

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Originally decorated in European style, the palace was looted after the king's death in 1820 and later suffered damage during the earthquake of 1842 before gradually turning into the ruins you see today.

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Christophe had this palace built (along with his fortress which we will be visiting after this) for three reasons:

1. to defend the country from the French
2. to defend his kingdom from enemies from the south (Haiti was divided in two at that time)
3. to show the world what a great nation Haiti was and what it was capable of

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When Napoleon sent two spies to Haiti to report back on how the palace was organised for a possible raid, Christophe tricked them into believing that he had an enormous army. The French envoy stood in this very position at the top of the stairs (below), while Christophe's soldiers marched down the steps opposite.

Christophe's entire troupe of one thousand soldiers paraded down the stairs, then snuck around the back and up into the palace, changed into another set of uniforms and filed down those steps again (and again and again...); thus giving the French spies the impression that Haiti had a ten thousand-strong army!

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Christophe greatly admired Napoleon. So much so, that he had his portrait hanging in one of his galleries. When news reached him that Napoleon had been captured alive, Christophe tore down the picture, tearing it to pieces with the words: “Great men should never survive!”

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Later, suffering from illness and fearing a coup, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, aged 53. The deed was done in this very room (below), using the silver pistol we saw in the museum on our first day in Port au Prince.

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Fearing attacks from the French as well as the southerners, security was strict at the palace. The guards in the sentry box would stop any visitors, and if they were unable to show the right ID, it was straight to the dungeons. Fortunately Maurice doesn't exercise the same defence policy!

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The palace complex also includes the Queen's apartments,

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her pool and fountain,

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and a printing press. Christophe's philosophy was that all children should receive a decent education.

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Having been here before the palace was built, the authorities are now trying to keep this 300 year old star apple tree alive. It was known as the Justice Tree, because the king used to sit under its branches, handing out judgement to his people.

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Kyle turns out to be quite the mountain goat, and he climbs a crumbling old wall for a better view of the palace from above.

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We take our photos from the safety of terra firma.

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Citadelle la Ferrière

From Sans Souci Palace, we continue up the hill to Citadelle la Ferrière.

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This is the number one tourist attraction in Haiti, and the most common way to reach the towering heights of the fortress, is on horse back.

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As I am adamant that there is no way I am going to subject any horse to the weight of my body, Maurice tries to organise a 'rhino' for me. I struggle with the thought of a one-horned African animal with a saddle on its back ferrying me on narrow stony paths in Haiti... especially after my last close encounter with a rhino. I am therefore very relieved to know that the 'rhino' they refer to is in fact a small motorised vehicle similar to a golf cart.

Unfortunately, however, the rhino is sick today. Looks like there will be no visit to the Citadelle for me then, as the 1.6 mile long track is notoriously steep and not something I relish the thought of attempting in this heat. I therefore give David my camera, wave him goodbye and stay behind with the horse handlers, self-appointed guides and souvenir vendors; while David mounts his horse and rides into the great unknown with Kyle, Serge and Maurice.

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David has never really been at ease on a horse (he has similar memories of Peter the Plodding Pony as I do of rhinos), so I am impressed that he manages to take photos while riding!

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At the top, riders alight the horses onto cannons, some of many still left around the grounds of the fort.

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It is customary to buy the horse handlers a drink from the conveniently positioned vendors (above), while the horses get their own water and are left to graze as the tourists explore.

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The imposing Citadelle was commissioned in 1805 by Henri Christophe - who at the time was chief administrator in the region, became the president of Northern Haiti in 1807 and declared himself king four years later.

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The largest fortress in the western hemisphere, it took 20,000 men 15 years to build. Created as a protection against the French, who were expected to return after Haiti's independence to re-take their colony by force, the citadel was built to be able to accommodate 5,000 defenders - as well as general / president / King Christophe and his family - for up to a year, enabling the king to use the so-called scorched earth policy in case of attack.

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The construction of the Citadelle is certainly monumental, with ten feet thick and 130 feet high walls, making it a daunting prospect for anyone to try and storm the fort.

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Three of the four sides are virtually impregnable, with only the south aspect a little more exposed. To counteract this weakness, another fort was built on a small hill nearby to protect the Citadelle from any would-be invaders choosing to attack from this direction.

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Not to mention the amazing artillery battery pointing in this direction.

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The Citadelle was outfitted with 365 cannons of different sizes obtained from various monarchs including this British one (bottom photo).

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The height of the mountaintop upon which the Citadelle resides is 950 meters, and provides an exceptional views of the surrounding landscape, something which was the main factor of the fort's position - King Christophe and his men were able to observe any ships arriving at the coast. Apparently it is even possible to see the eastern coast of Cuba (140km away) on a clear day.

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Under Christophe's policies of corvée, or forced labour, the Kingdom increased its wealth by trading in sugar; but the people resented the system. Unpopular, debilitated by a stroke, and concerned about being overthrown, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, by which time the Citadelle was only 95% completed. His body is allegedly entombed within its walls, as is that of his brother-in-law (below), who died in an accidental explosion.

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The fort complex included a printing shop, garment factories, a hospital, schools, a distillery, a chapel, and military barracks.

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And apparently a pizza oven!

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One of the more impressive features is the rainwater collection system on the roof. With a lack of underground water (the Citadelle is built directly onto the rock), the fort was constructed so that rain could be utilised to supply its inhabitants with water.

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Citadelle la Ferrière was never put to the test, since the French did not come came back to reconquer Haiti; and the fort was later abandoned.

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Lakou Lakay

We too abandon the Citadelle and make our way to Lakou Lakay Cultural Centre for lunch. Run by Maurice (our guide) and his family, the aim of the centre is to preserve the rich cultural traditions of Haiti including folk dance as well as teaching local children to read.

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There are many beautiful items for sale in his small boutique, all locally made.

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In the grounds of his property grow various fruit trees, including this soursop tree. The leaves are thought to cure cancer and the juice made from the fruit cleanses the blood. We have become rather partial to this drink, so it is good to hear that it has medicinal properties too.

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We are greeted by Maurice's beautiful daughter with a bowl of water and some soap; so that we can be nice and clean in preparation for tucking into the delicious spread provided: there is chicken, vegetables, fried plantain, diri djon djon (rice cooked with the juice from black mushrooms), potatoes stuffed with fish...

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… with a special mention to the hot pickles. For many years now I have graded chillies and spicy food on a 1-10 'Grete Scale'. Since arrived in Haiti, much to Serge's surprise, I haven't found anything spicier than a 6. These chillies, however, are super HOT, and I would say they are a good 8.5 or even a 9! Pretty mind-blowing stuff!

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After lunch we need to drop Kyle off at the airport for his flight back to Port au Prince. Unlike his outbound flight this morning, the check-in process goes without a hitch, and we are soon on our way across town, leaving Kyle to wait for his flight.

Cap-Haïtien

Cap Haïtien was an important city during the French colonial period, serving as the capital until it was moved to Port-au-Prince in 1770. Again after the revolution in 1804, Cap Haïtien became the capital of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti until 1820. The town is now a mix of a shabby and somewhat seedy port area and a much more charming 'down-town' section where brightly painted, well-kept houses mingle with dilapidated and crumbling properties.

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Wherever we go, there is traffic. Always traffic. Which is one of the reasons the waterfront area looks like it does - a whole swathe of buildings have been removed to make way for a brand new freeway.

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And well turned out school children. As per education policies, children are not allowed to turn up at school looking in any way unkempt. However poor the family may be, their kids always look immaculate: neatly pressed uniform, hair with half a dozen or more bows, highly polished shoes. Just like the children back home in England. Not.

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Hotel Roi Christophe

At this point I must have a little whinge about my lack of linguistic abilities. OK, so I am bilingual in Norwegian and English, I speak enough German to just about hold a simple conversation, and I can order food in Spanish; so why, oh why, do I struggle so with French? Pourquoi indeed. To me the pronunciation is just totally illogical: take the word roi (meaning king) for instance. How on earth this word goes from being written roi, to being pronounced wah is beyond me. (See here for the correct pronunciation).

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Anyway, back to the hotel, named after Henri Christophe, the former slave and a key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. Christophe created a separate government in this area and in 1807, three years after the end of the revolution and independence of Haiti from the French, he was elected President of the State of Haiti, as he named that area. Alexandre Pétion was chosen as president in the South. In 1811, Christophe converted the state into a kingdom and proclaimed himself Henry I, King of Haïti.

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Touted by Lonely Planet to be the most charming hotel in Cap HaÏtien, the Roi Christophe is a delightful colonial building from the 18th century. Once a palace belonging to a French governor, it now has a Spanish hacienda feel to it.

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The moment we arrive I am in love with this place. So much greenery, so many little gems hidden away amongst broad leaved banana shrubs and flowering hibiscus, such as intimate seating areas and eclectic art.

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There are several bar areas dotted around, although the service is more than a little slow... funnily enough, having tipped well when the first drink is brought out, the speed of the server suddenly increases rapidly.

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Eventually we settle on some chairs by the pool, overlooking several large trees for some bird watching. With a drink of course.

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While we haven't seen many birds here in Haiti up until this point – the Roi Christophe grounds are overrun with the endemic Hispaniolan Woodpecker!

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I have never seen so many woodpeckers in any one place – everywhere we look there is another one – I count at least a dozen!

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Parents flit back and forth feeding their babies, and some even seem to service two nests at once. How does that work?

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They may be pretty birds, but look what they've done to the poor trees!

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Also spotted in amongst the foliage is the Hispaniolan Palm Crow and the Palm Chat – both endemic to this island; the more widespread Grey Kingbird and the near-endangered Plain Pigeon.

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Palmchat

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Grey Kingbird

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Plain Pigeon

We see what initially looks like a 'blob' (a fruit maybe?) high in a tree, and wander off to investigate. The 'blob' turns out to be a large bird, but we are really not sure exactly what it is. After further inspection, a lot of discussions, and googling on our phones, we decide it is a juvenile Yellow Crowed Night Heron.

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Seeing several adults in the same tree later, including a nest, seems to confirm our suspicions.

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There might not be a great variety of birds here, but there are certainly more than we have seen anywhere else in Haiti; and it's such a charming place to while away a few hours that we are almost sorry when the light fades and it's time to get ready for dinner.

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Dinner

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Not particularly memorable, but the Griot de Porc is very tasty, albeit a little too fatty and bony for me. The fried plantains, however, are the best we've had so far on this trip!

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The flan (vanilla/caramel pudding) is quite nice.

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We have another couple of drinks before retiring to bed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:58 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds traffic horses history travel ruins hotel fort flight palace canons caribbean unesco photography airline revolution woodpecker chillies pilot aerial_photography spicy haiti bird_watching horse_riding fortifications citadelle cap-haïtien sans_soucie citadelle_la_ferrière sunrise_airways cap_haitien roi_christophe haitien_revolution fotress canon_balls lakau_lakay haitien_food haitien_art soursop school_kids yellow_crowned_night_heron fried_plantain Comments (1)

Jacmel Carnival

Party Time

semi-overcast 31 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day five of our tour of Haiti, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations

Today's the day!

Today's entry is full of photographs from what is undoubtedly the highlight of this trip - Jacmel carnival. What you will see, however, is only a small fraction of the 2000+ photos I took today. I have also included a number of short video clips (mostly courtesy of David), as these far better convey the electric atmosphere of the day.

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The day doesn't start well. At breakfast I pour what I think is syrup on my French toast, only to discover it is honey! Honey is one of the few foods I really can't stand! Fortunately I notice fairly straight away by the consistency, so manage to avert too much of a 'disaster'.

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We hang around in reception while everyone checks out of the hotel, so that we can travel together to the city centre for today's highlight: CARNIVAL!

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Balcony

Jacqui (of Voyages Lumiere)has arranged a private balcony for us all to use today, overlooking the main carnival route. We have the downstairs and upstairs, and can come and go as we please. We even have chairs and a cooler box full of drinks where we can just help ourselves on an honesty basis. To top it all, a 'servant' will fetch food and anything else we might want. This is the life!

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We arrive in plenty of time, and people-watch while we wait for the parade to start. The police is certainly out in force here today, with the different factions such as the motorcycle police, military police and riot police amongst others. I never knew there were so many different types of police! At least we should be safe!

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The Carnival is supposed to start at 12:00, and at 11:30, Paula's man at the port (where the procession starts from) says: “We're almost ready to go”. That's great news.

At 11:45, news comes through that the Tourism Minister has decided she wants to be there at the start, so everyone has to wait for her. That is not good news – she is not known for her punctuality (at last night's meeting that Paula and Xiomara attended, she still hadn't turned up by the time they left, nearly two hours after she was supposed to)

We keep seeing masks being carried along the road, and people (almost) in costume, fuelling an already rapidly rising anticipation. I am so excited, like a little kid before a big birthday party!

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Seeing a large crane heading towards the carnival start point is a great cause for concern as last year 18 people died and 78 were injured in an accident at the Port au Prince carnival, after a float struck a power line and a stampede ensued.

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I am a little surprised at how few people there are on the streets, apart from vendors selling coconuts, sunglasses, hats and the like, there aren't anywhere near as many people as I had expected.

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The first aiders are arriving en masse, now all we need is the parade! Come on guys!

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Carnival

Finally! Huge crowds appear around the corner, at the bottom of the road! Jacmel Carnival 2016 is officially under way!

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OK, so we've seen a few pretty dancers, but I have to confess that I am a little disappointed. Jacmel carnival is famous for its flamboyant masks, many of which we saw yesterday. Where are they? Surely this is not all we are going to see?

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The crowds part as these guys run through, threatening to smear onlookers from their buckets of mud.

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At last the masked participants start arriving, with figures inspired by politics, history, topical issues, vodou, folklore and legend. Plus a LOT of imagination.

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I love the Haiti versions of the selfie stick.

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This guys has even got a smart watch!

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Some of the troupes take quite a bit of deciphering, especially as I don't speak French (let alone Creole), so can't even read the banners. But I am guessing that this band are mocking the president.

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There are boys showing off their toys...

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… and references to Haiti's freedom from slavery.

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United Nations is not spared from ridicule relating to the belief that they were the ones who brought cholera to the already heavily suffering nation post-earthquake.

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Anti-violence is a common theme at this year's Jacmel carnival.

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Transvestites feature heavily too.

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I leave my sheltered balcony hideaway to go down and mingle among the pretty girls in their colourful dresses.

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The Chaloskas represent a parody of the brutal General Charles Oscar, who terrorised Haiti at the start of the last century.

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A large band of people dressed in various African animal costumes arrive. The parade has now come to a standstill, with a bottleneck further ahead in front of the official grandstands where all the troupes want to show off their best performances and dance routines for the local dignitaries. This causes the following participants to bunch up, just in front of where we are hanging out.

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I am very surprised to see a drone flying above the crowd. As soon as I point my long lens towards him, he flies off.

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The next troupe is the stuff that nightmares are made from – I hope I can sleep tonight!

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A little light relief before the Lanset Kod arrive.

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The intimidating and sinister-looking Lanset Kod, who symbolise Haiti’s struggle against slavery, are smeared with a mixture of charcoal and cane syrup, and run through the crowds, smearing their gunk over anyone who gets in their way.

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There must be thousands of people in various costumes – this is a photographer's delight and a photographer's nightmare. A riot of colour and so many fantastical shapes, but also so hard to get any sort of definition in my photos, picking out a single figure against a backdrop of so many, or trying to avoid other people getting in the way of my photos. After all, I am not the only one who wants pictures of this day!

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The temperature is around 30 °C in Jacmel today. In the shade. The parade route is in full sun, and those people inside the masks must be absolutely melting! We see several of them lifting up the huge creations covering their heads, just to get some much needed air; especially while they are stuck in a 'traffic jam'.

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Or for a selfie of course...

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More animals follow – some 'real', some mythical, all colourful, exotic and imaginative.

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One of my favourites is this little elephant doing his best Jungle Book routine.

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The 'anti-hunt' theme is strong, and like most of these troupes, they play out a scene. Here the lions chase – and catch – the hunter.

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Haitian Kanaval (the local Haitian Creole name) is held over several weeks each year leading up to Mardi Gras. Jacmel's carnival is said to be one of the best in the country and it certainly one the main reasons we are here now.

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The so-called Mathurin Bat-Devils clack their wings together, creating an air-piercing gun-shot like noise!

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The loud bangs don't seem to bother the horses though (although not all are real of course), they are calm and collected through it all.

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Mardi Gras rituals are thought to date back to seasonal pagan traditions, although Christianity and in particular, Catholicism, has put this celebration firmly on the calendar of many a country. Literally translated as “Fat Tuesday”, Mardi Gras is celebrated the last day before Lent starts. Traditionally, groups of people would come together on this day, bringing with them whatever foods they had leftover before embarking on several weeks of fasting, creating a frenzied overindulgence on eggs, milk, cheese and meat, and generally having a raucous old time. The word Carnival is thought to come from the Medieval Latin words carne vale, meaning 'farewell to the flesh.'

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Was I really 'complaining' about the lack of crowds earlier?

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The tradition of wearing masks for Mardi Gras celebrations date back at least a couple of thousand years, to a time before Christianity, when young men in disguise roamed the streets making merry during the winter Saturnalia festival in ancient Rome, dressing up in outrageous costumes and generally ridiculing their superiors. Later, in Renaissance Italy, masked balls became a way for people of all walks of life to mingle with anyone and everyone without being tied to the usual class constraints and social demands. In New Orleans they are a bit of a hot potato and were banned for a number of years. Some stores still requests wearers to remove them before entering their premises.

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We saw this outfit in the exhibition yesterday - Ati Brino. This was the explanation they offered: 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.

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Body paint with or without slogans abound.

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A girl plaits the hair of her mask while she waits for the bottle neck to disperse.

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And a bottleneck it certainly is!

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This chap – drunk as a skunk – staggers through the crowds, spraying unsuspecting onlookers with talcum powder.

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Baron Samedi is the Haitian Vodou loa (spirit) of the dead, and is usually depicted dressed to resemble a corpse prepared for a Haitian style burial.

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Audience participation is very much the name of the game here, and the troupes play to the spectators, while the spectators tease the characters.

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Papa Jwif, the Haitian version of the Wandering Jew from Christian folklore

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The parade participants come in every imaginable shape, colour and rendition, and I really wish I knew what they all represent. Here are a few more of my favourites:

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In the distance I spot smoke, and discover these guys with fire coming out of their hats!

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After taking a few shots from the balcony, I go down to street level to mingle with them and take a closer look. They are nowhere to be seen, and no smoke billowing up amongst the crowds either. I wander around looking lost for a while, weaving in and out of the performers; until I finally catch David's eye on the balcony, who directs me to their position from his birds-eye perch.

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Most of the outfits are too fantastical to be scary, but I have to say I find this guy a little creepy – and I am not sure the snake is too impressed either!

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We are not the only people who have sought a refuge on a balcony or rooftop, away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds below.

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These guys are seriously disturbing, with their bodies painted black and carrying a coffin! The crowds disperse as they make their way up the road, possibly in fear of being smeared with the black stuff on their bodies, although I see what looks like genuine fear as the spectators scatter.

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OK, so how many legs are there on a turkey? We count eight on this one...

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Doesn't everyone want a selfie with a giant turkey?

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Jacmel Carnival 2016 is now officially over, and the streets fill with crowds who have been following the procession.

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Bringing up the rear are three typically painted Haitian buses as we say goodbye to the owners whose balcony we have been occupying, and try to find where our own transport is waiting.

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Somehow we end up forgetting to say goodbye to Jenis and Andrew (sorry guys) who are staying on in Jacmel for another day or two.

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We see more carnival floats and dancing bands as Geffrard picks us up in the minibus and we make our way back to Port au Prince this evening.

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In addition to Jacqui, we are joined in the van by Paul Clammer who is in Haiti to update the Bradt guide book to Haiti he previously wrote. The journey goes really quickly as we share travel stories and regale tales of unfortunate incidents and difficult co-travellers. Over the hills the sun is setting; the end of a crazy, absurd, extraordinary day.

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Coming back to Le Plaza Hotel in Port au Prince is like coming home - familiar and comfortable.

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We almost don't get here, however, as the road outside our hotel is closed again - this time for pre-carnival celebrations. Geffrard argues with the police and they finally let us through. The noise if deafening, with blaring music and fireworks, and people everywhere!

I feel quite exhausted and we decide we'll miss dinner this evening. I an certainly not up for partying in the street! Later, when I realise that it is 12½ hours since I last peed, I surmise that I am well and truly dehydrated, which would explain the tiredness. At least it means I sleep through all the commotion outside.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:00 Archived in Haiti Tagged masks travel folklore holiday caribbean parade costume cosplay procession rollerblades mardi_gras haiti lent jacmel cyvadier_plage canrival carnavan kanaval baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou dressing_up Comments (1)

Jacmel

Walking tour of Jacmel Town

sunny 31 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

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.

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Or at least it would be tranquil and harmonious if it wasn't for the shrieking kids in the pool! Enough said.

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Hotel Florita

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Where the restaurant is now, is where the coffee was stored in the old days.

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In the courtyard was the kitchen and servants quarters.

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Michel explains how these safety boxes in the vestibule once belonged to the National Bank.

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I particularly love the staircases.

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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.

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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...

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David chooses well.

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Alliance Française

Housed in the French Library is an exhibition of Vodou-inspired art.

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I rather like the recycling concept, and two pieces that particularly catch my eye are the 'doll' whose torso is crafted from a camera...

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… and this guy with a keyboard slung across his shoulders.

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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.

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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.

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The resulting murals have proved so popular that they have been incorporated into Jacmel's new logo.

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UNESCO

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We peer in through a side window to catch a glimpse of its interior.

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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.

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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.

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Place Louverture

The main plaza in Jacmel, where parades and Easter celebrations take place.

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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.

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The Town Hall is also located on the square.

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Street Art

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.

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I love the 21st century touch - “Follow me on Twitter”!

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Plan Haiti

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The house where Bolívar lived for a few months in 1816, is marked with a plaque.

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Carnival Anticipation

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.

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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.

Ati Brino
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.

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Zombi
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.

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Manbo Yaya
The queen of the rara – a band of people who roam the streets during lent.

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Bann Dyab
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.

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The Yawe
Deformation of the name Yahveh, this costume is a satire against the successful merchant Jews of Jacmel by the Bourgeoisie.

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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.

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The Errant Jew
Satirical mask against the merchant Jews of Jacmel, created by other Europeans of the community, jealous of their economical success.

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Les Feuilles de Banane
Satirical mask against the Bourgeoisie merchants of bananas.

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Charles Oscar
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.

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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.

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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.

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Mask Shop
At another mask shop, Michel shows us how to wear a tiger's head.

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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.

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Lunch

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.

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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!

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Dawn invites us to try some of her accra malanga – taro root fritters.

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Another one of the local dishes recommended to taste is the pain patate – a sweet potato bread.

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Siesta

We even have time for a siesta before dinner. Unlike this guy, we actually retire to our air conditioned room for a welcome nap.

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Dinner

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!

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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).

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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!

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Folklore Show

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.

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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.

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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.

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The second act focusses on honouring the deity of the trees, encouraging any bad spirits or illness to be removed from the body.

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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.

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The possessed dancer lies writhing and shaking on the floor, and the other participants smear her body with leaves.

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She is cured, helped to her feet and all is well in the world again.

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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.

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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.

Posted by Grete Howard 07:10 Archived in Haiti Tagged caribbean haiti jacmel cyvadier_plage Comments (3)

Port au Prince - Jacmel

Heading down South

sunny 30 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Oh dear. My head tells me I had too much rum last night. Plenty of orange juice to start the day methinks.

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Getting dressed this morning, David discovers he's packed an odd pair of socks. It's the third pair this trip!

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Despite covering myself in 50% DEET last night, it seems a have inadvertently been feeding the local wildlife. My knuckles are somewhat itchy and badly swollen, but hopefully it is nothing serious.

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The hotel grounds are beautiful with their large palms and trailing tree branches, but they do pose a little bit of a health hazard – one of those coconuts landing on your head could cause some serious damage! It is exciting to watch the lithe men shimmying up the trunk of the palms to chop off branches, collect the coconuts and generally trim the trees to a more manageable condition.

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We spend some time chatting with Marc, the hotel owner's son, hearing the story of how his father started the business in 1961 as a small, wooden boarding house; later buying up neighbouring properties in order to extend the hotel.

David impresses me with the Google Command on his phone. Oh, how I love technology - you can call me a nerd!

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After a relaxing morning catching up on some reading followed by a light lunch, we meet up with Geffrard and Jacqui for the drive to Jacmel. Our journey out of Port au Prince takes us through Carrefour, one of the two areas which are allegedly deemed 'unsafe' by The British Foreign Office.

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Once we get out of town, it's a pretty journey across the mountains to the south coast, and we make a few stops to admire the scenery.

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The road passes through many small communities along the way, mostly traditional market villages.

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Small, temporary houses built immediately after the 2010 earthquake line the road side.

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Bananas

Bananas are big business in Haiti these days, and last year (2015) they exported their first bananas for 60 years. It is hoped that by 2017, 450 containers full of bananas will be shipped each week to the European market. This is great news for the restoration of Haiti's economy.

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Once harvested, the fruit is packed in large baskets, with dry banana leaves used for padding and protection. Huge trucks come along and take the baskets to Port au Prince and the harbour for their onward journey to Europe.

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Public Transport

Passing some different local public transport on the road, I am grateful for our private van.

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Cyvadier Plage Hotel

We have to pass through the town of Jacmel to reach our home for the next couple of nights: a beach hotel placed beautifully on a cliff above the rugged coastline.

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Our room is at the far end of the grounds, right by the access to the beach below, with good views over the rest of the property from the balcony.

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After checking in to the room, we join Jacqui and some of her friends for a drink in the bar.

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A welcome coconut has some rum added to it 'for extra flavour'. Very nice it is too.

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Dawn later shows us how to remove and eat the flesh from the coconut.

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A bottle of champagne appears. I decline the offer of a glass, as my history with champers is not good.

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When Jacqui first introduces us as “real tourists” to the rest of her group, I am not sure what to make of it. Should I be insulted? Chatting to the other people, I begin to understand what she is referring to: they all live in Haiti, and work as NGOs or ambassadors for their country. In other words - they are classed as 'domestic tourists' or 'weekenders'.

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Ambassadors can be fun too...

This is quintessentially Caribbean and far removed from the hustle and bustle of Port au Prince: coconuts, rum, beautiful sunset, local band, fabulous lobsters. And an ambassador in a zebra mask. Isn't there always?

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Later Woodward serenades Jacqui at the table – very good he is too!

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It is certainly an evening to remember!

Posted by Grete Howard 11:47 Archived in Haiti Tagged caribbean haiti jacmel Comments (0)

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