31.01.2016 - 31.01.2016 31 °C
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.
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'.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
The first aiders are arriving en masse, now all we need is the parade! Come on guys!
Finally! Huge crowds appear around the corner, at the bottom of the road! Jacmel Carnival 2016 is officially under way!
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?
The crowds part as these guys run through, threatening to smear onlookers from their buckets of mud.
At last the masked participants start arriving, with figures inspired by politics, history, topical issues, vodou, folklore and legend. Plus a LOT of imagination.
I love the Haiti versions of the selfie stick.
This guys has even got a smart watch!
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.
There are boys showing off their toys...
… and references to Haiti's freedom from slavery.
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.
Anti-violence is a common theme at this year's Jacmel carnival.
Transvestites feature heavily too.
I leave my sheltered balcony hideaway to go down and mingle among the pretty girls in their colourful dresses.
The Chaloskas represent a parody of the brutal General Charles Oscar, who terrorised Haiti at the start of the last century.
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.
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.
The next troupe is the stuff that nightmares are made from – I hope I can sleep tonight!
A little light relief before the Lanset Kod arrive.
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.
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!
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'.
Or for a selfie of course...
More animals follow – some 'real', some mythical, all colourful, exotic and imaginative.
One of my favourites is this little elephant doing his best Jungle Book routine.
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.
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.
The so-called Mathurin Bat-Devils clack their wings together, creating an air-piercing gun-shot like noise!
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.
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.'
Was I really 'complaining' about the lack of crowds earlier?
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.
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.
Body paint with or without slogans abound.
A girl plaits the hair of her mask while she waits for the bottle neck to disperse.
And a bottleneck it certainly is!
This chap – drunk as a skunk – staggers through the crowds, spraying unsuspecting onlookers with talcum powder.
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.
Audience participation is very much the name of the game here, and the troupes play to the spectators, while the spectators tease the characters.
Papa Jwif, the Haitian version of the Wandering Jew from Christian folklore
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:
In the distance I spot smoke, and discover these guys with fire coming out of their hats!
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.
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!
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.
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.
OK, so how many legs are there on a turkey? We count eight on this one...
Doesn't everyone want a selfie with a giant turkey?
Jacmel Carnival 2016 is now officially over, and the streets fill with crowds who have been following the procession.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coming back to Le Plaza Hotel in Port au Prince is like coming home - familiar and comfortable.
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.