A Travellerspoint blog

January 2016

Jacmel Carnival

Party Time

semi-overcast 31 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 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 - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 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 - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 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)

Jalousie, Bouteliers, Furcy and Pétionville

Head for the hills

semi-overcast 32 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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I have to say the cleaning staff is certainly efficient here, Housekeeping knock on the door at 07:55 this morning, wanting to make the room up! Normally we are up and out by that time, but this holiday has some nice, leisurely starts. In fact, we have quite a lot of free time on this trip – is this a sign that we are getting old?

Not only are they efficient here at Le Plaza, they are extremely friendly too. The girl who 'checks us in' at breakfast fusses over my hair; and Jerry, the waiter, won't let us carry and thing - not even the plate or glass - from the buffet.

I try a vegetable tortilla and some sautéed ham for breakfast this morning, rather than the usual omelette. It makes a nice change.

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Jalousie – Beauty v/ Poverty

Today we head for the hills, with the first stop being a look-out point over Jalousie, one of Haiti's slum areas built into the side of Morne L’Hôpital.

Inspired by famous Haitian painter Prefete Duffaut, who died in 2012, the houses have been painted in rainbow colours as part of a government scheme called “Jalousie en couleurs” (Jalousie in Colours).
The scheme involved rebuilding earthquake-damaged houses, installing running water, and introducing rent-free accommodation (initially at least), in order to attract people to move here from displacement camps downtown. Being on such a steep slope has its disadvantages though, with many of the homes built on the ravines that serve as canals for rainwater. Due to the lack of vegetation to hold it back, during the rainy season water and mud have been known to carry away people, animals and even entire houses.

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Poverty

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and the third poorest country in the world outside Africa (the top spots go to Afghanistan and Nepal). Decades of neglect and a lack of investment in water and sanitation are still manifested in the country’s malnutrition and child mortality rates, which are the highest in the region. Some 80% of the population live below the poverty line while the country is in an advanced state of industrial collapse, with a GDP per capita of just $2 a day.

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Pride

What has struck us here in Haiti, however, is the pride of the people. No-one looks poor. Everyone takes great care of their appearance, their clothes are always clean, the children are immaculate in their school uniforms. If I take one single word away with me from our time here is Haiti, it has to be PRIDE.

A new building springing up this side of the ravine - I guess the view we have today will soon be obscured by a multi-storey apartment block.

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Love the writing on the side of his helmet: Le Boss!

The road is narrow and winding, with lots of traffic. We get stuck behind a large truck which spews out putrid, black smoke as we travel up and up and up.

Bouteliers

We leave the smoking truck behind and turn off the main road to take a detour to Bouteliers, where the aptly named restaurant Observatoire offers amazing views.

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Below us lies Port au Prince and its suburbs spread out.

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On closer inspection, we can see the different aspects of Haiti's capital city, from its leafy suburbs...

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… to its tightly packed poorer quarters...

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… the town's enormous cemetery...

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… and the main town centre.

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It's not until I see it all laid out below me like this that I realise just how central our hotel is. There it is, right in the middle of all the main sights of downtown Port au Prince.

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Chaîne de la Selle

As we climb higher into the mountainous interior of Haiti, low clouds obscure the top of the mountain ranges.

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Ayiti (the original name of Haiti) means mountainous land in Taino language, the ethnic group who lived in Haiti for 700 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. In fact, Haiti is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean with its peaks plunging steeply down to the thin strips of coastal plain.

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We stop a couple of places to admire the scenery, looking out over the valleys, terraced fields and clusters of buildings that dot the countryside. Here they grow vegetables which are sold in the street markets and at the big supermarkets in town. It is nice to know that the small squares we see are owned by the farmers, not by some rich landowner leasing it to workers at an astronomical price.

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At Fermanthe, we stop to buy some post cards, a fridge magnet and use the facilities. The choice of post cards – the first ones we've seen in Haiti – is very limited indeed. Serge – who is also a keen photographer – is thinking about making his own. I hope he does, as I am sure he would be able to offer a much better selection than the ones available at the Mountain Maid Baptist Mission here.

Kenscoff

This is where a lot of the produce we saw growing on the hillsides ends up – the main market for the whole mountain region.

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Furcy

At 6,236 feet (Serge has an altimeter on his smart watch!), the air here is cool and clean – quite the contrast to Port au Prince at sea level.

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The site is absolutely spectacular, sitting on a ridge overlooking valleys and mountains, and there is an almost serene Alpine charm to the place.

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The spectacular track on the ridge of the mountain range takes you across to Jacmel – it is accessible by 4WD only though. Shame. It looks like a fun drive.

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This, surely, is where the Haitan proverb Dèyè mon gen mon ('Beyond the mountain there are mountains again') was coined.

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Pétionville

Making our way back down to Port au Prince, we make a stop in Pétionville.
Named after the first president of the Republique of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, this is the upmarket tourist area of Port au Prince and is known for its palatial mansions and numerous art galleries. I found the description of Pétionville in Wikipedia patronising, condescending and highly insulting, suggesting that the suburb has “an appearance of western normality”. What the **** is that, and why would I travel to Haiti to experience it when I can instead immerse myself in the rich and eclectic culture that the years of mixed heritage has created ?

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Anyway, climbing back down from my soap box...

Pétionville has a country club and Haiti's only golf club. Wow! (insert sarcasm font here).

Lunch

We mentioned to Serge yesterday that we are keen to try some local food rather than international stuff and that we like spices; so he takes us to La Coquille Restaurant for lunch.

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With tightly packed tables inside and out, the buffet restaurant is popular with locals.

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One of the drinks Jacqui suggested we try, was soursop juice – a fruit native to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean. This is a new one to us, and it tastes a little like a creamy banana milkshake.

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Again it comes served au naturel, with extra sugar to add if desired.

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And judging by the look on David's face, I would say it is probably required.

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Round one of the buffet consists of:

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diri djon djon – a traditional Hatian Creole dish where rice is cooked with water in which dried black mushrooms have been soaked/cooked. The mushrooms themselves are not served with it, just the rice which is stained brownish-black by the mushroom water.

rice served with beans in a sauce poured over it

lalo legume – jute leaves cooked until slightly sticky

cabbage and carrots

For round two I pick up a few things that were not available on my first visit to the buffet – some very fatty but tasty fried beef, green beans, beetroot and pasta in a creamy sauce.

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Art Gallery

Pétionville is famous for its art galleries, and after lunch, we visit an upmarket showroom, complete with armed security guard outside, a beautifully presented but bored looking female assistant, and super-efficient air conditioning. To be fair, it has some pretty awesome art - we are not tempted, however. Serge asks us, half-heartedly, if we would like to visit another gallery...? I think he knew the answer even before he finished the sentence.

Caribbean Supermarket

Instead he takes us to the Caribbean Supermarket. Commenting to Jacqui yesterday that the one thing I would miss if I moved to a place such as Haiti, is the supermarkets back home; Jacqui looked at me aghast and exclaimed: “Are you kidding me?” Entering the clean, modern and extremely well stocked store, I see her point. Heck, they even have Strongbow cider!

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Barbancourt Rum

And no, we don't buy any cider. We do, however, get some local 8 year old rum. The Barbancourt Distillery is over one hundred and fifty years old, and the rum is referred to as the 'rum of connoisseurs'. We shall look forward to sampling this and seeing what it is like. Not that I am a connoisseur, but I do have some experience with rum...

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Taking no chances, we strap our booty well in to the seat of the van as we make our way back to Port au Prince.

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Post Office

Having bought post cards this morning, the logical next step is stamps. You'd think that would be an easy job. Not so in Haiti. The post office does not produce stamps above 20 gourdes. A card for America costs 200 gourdes and for England we require 15 stamps per card. Don't even think about sending post cards to Australia! $40 for stamps to go on ten cards may be horrendously steep, but to me it is worth it just for the unique experience of sticking the blighters on the cards! I just hope they actually get there after all this!

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Traffic

As we enter Port au Prince proper, we get stuck in traffic. Serge blames it on the school run – nothing new there then: just like back home! At least it gives me a chance to people-watch...

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Everybody needs some form of entertainment, and in a country like Haiti, where life is tough, jobs are scarce and poverty is rife, dominoes offer just that: a chance to relax, hang out with friends and even partake in a spot of gambling without necessarily having to put down any monetary stakes.

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It seems it is not just me who finds the city heat too much – I suppose if you work on a street-side vegetable stall, you have to use some ingenuity in order to find somewhere to take an uninterrupted afternoon siesta.

Road Block

Fed up with sitting in stationary traffic, Geffrard tries to take short cuts across other avenues, but he's not the only one attempting to get around the gridlock. Eventually we discover the reason for this heavier-than-usual amount of traffic – a road block. Riot police with shields and semi-automatic guns at the ready tell me “no photos”. I oblige – after a quick covert snap from inside the car.

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We are ordered out of the car, as no vehicles are allowed anywhere past this point. Geffrard and Serge argue that they want to transport these tourists to their hotel; but the gendarme is not impressed. Don't they know who we are? Apparently not; and we make our way through the throngs of milling people on foot to get to Le Plaza, where the metal gate is locked, bolted and guarded by two burly men armed with assault rifles. “Let us in!”

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Safe Haven?

As always, Le Plaza is a haven of tranquillity and respite from the disturbing turmoil on the streets outside. But did I come here for a sedate and calm holiday? Did I heck! Finding a suitable (safe?) viewpoint, I start photographing the political rally that snakes its way through the city.

Political Rally

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Unlike some of the recent inflamed and destructive demonstrations by the opposition parties (there are over 100 political parties, with 56 presidential candidates for the upcoming elections); this procession is organised by the ruling party with a strong anti-violence message in an attempt to show the world (or at least the Haitian voters) their own peaceful approach.

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Pink? Really? Who on earth was in charge of the colour scheme for the campaign?

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Having already twice been told “No Photos” by uniformed, armed police, I am initially a little apprehensive about openly photographing the rally, even from my safe view point; but the protesters themselves seem very friendly and quite happy to have their picture taken, waving their hands and placards at me. Haitians don't seem to smile naturally like some other nations, but when they do, their whole face lights up.

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The only casualty we see, is this guy who gets knocked off his bike when a car collides with it. At those snail-pace speeds, no harm is done and he laughs as he is helped back up again.

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Despite being billed as a peaceful rally, the police are taking no chances, and are out in force: ready for combat with their riot gear and armoured vehicles. When we later hear several sirens from outside the hotel grounds, we do wonder if the rally remained peaceful.

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Pool time

The show is over, and it's time to chill in more ways than one.

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Post cards

OK, we now have to start licking – the amount of stamps required for each card necessitates that the stamps go on immediately after the name and address, before even thinking about what to write.

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It certainly doesn't leave much space for writing!

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In fact, it doesn't leave much of the other side either; only the two cards bound for the US retain an unscathed picture. Australian friends will have to guess what the card shows.

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Beer!

With our tongues coated in glue, a drink is much called for! Rarely has an ice cold beer looked so welcome!

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Dinner

As usual, I find the starters on the menu more interesting than the main courses, and order two entreés instead of one mains, while David settles for a meat lovers' pizza.

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The starters are huge!

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Kebbeh – Arabic fried minced meat dish served with Picliz (Haitian coleslaw), and this one has a real kick!

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Accras de malenga – taro root fritters. A little bit dry - would have been nice with a chilli sauce or something for dipping

I am just grateful that I had two starters, not a starter and a main course, as I certainly couldn't finish these two!

As we have a late start tomorrow morning, we enjoy the rest of the evening by the pool in the company of a rum punch or four.

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PS. As of March 13th - six weeks later - none of the post cards have arrived. Boo! All that effort (and money) for nothing. I have waited until now to publish this blog entry in the hope that they would, so not to spoil the surprise.

Posted by Grete Howard 14:43 Archived in Haiti Tagged mountains art beer hills views shopping scenery pool pizza swimming_pool rum stamps haiti art_galleries petionville la_plaza_hotel port_au_price furcy political_rally post_cardselections haiti_elections Comments (0)

Port au Prince

It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it

semi-overcast 32 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day 1 of our Haiti trip with Undiscovered Destinations.

As somebody said: ‘This is not the Caribbean. This is a West African country that just happens to be in the Caribbean!’

This is the Caribbean where few tourists go; an extraordinary place of intoxicating carnivals, dramatic scenery, audacious art, charming architecture, curious religions and tumultuous history; where the only thing stronger than the rum is the spirit of its people.

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Le Plaza Hotel looks even more delightful during daylight hours. The layout is somewhat back-to front, with the reception being a long way from the car park; linked by shaded paths where trees have been allowed free reign.

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I was hoping that there might be a few exotic birds around, but all we see this morning is a Black Crowned Tanager and this Mourning Dove, plus a few lizards.

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I am not sure whether to be reassured or concerned by this sign in reception.

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Breakfast is good, and I am a bit taken aback when we meet a group of surgeons complete with blue scrubs and face mask as we enter the restaurant. They have presumably refuelled before rushing off to perform life-saving operations. Good for them!

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We meet up with Geffrard - the driver - again, and Serge, our local guide, for a tour of Port au Prince. Where Geffrard is a bulky man with an imposing look (he turns out to be a real sweetie though); Serge is of slight build, with long dreadlocks and a ready smile. We instantly like him.

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Port au Prince

The French made Port au Prince the capital of their colony of St Domingue in 1770, and the city later went on to be the capital of the new independent Haiti in 1804. With nearly 3 million inhabitants, Port au Prince is the largest city in Haiti and represents close to 30% of the country's total population.

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Gingerbread Houses

The 200 or so 'gingerbread houses' of Port au Prince are so called because of their resemblance to the edible variety: with latticework snaking around the eaves, porches, windows, and doors. This architectural style originated here in Haiti in the late 19th century, but the moniker 'gingerbread houses' wasn't coined until the 1950s, by foreign tourists who claimed the style resembled that of Victorian houses back in their native American South.

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The architectural movement was in fact not just based on American buildings, but also taken from the vibrant colours and flamboyant patterns of French resort architecture, and was started by three young Haitian architects who had travelled to Paris. The initial wave of gingerbreads were built by the nobility, featuring wide sweeping staircases, large wrap-around verandahs and steep roof lines.

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In order to make the houses more suitable for the Caribbean climate, glass windows were replaced by louvred shutters to create a breeze through the rooms; tall doors and high ceilings to help disperse rising heat; and flexible timber frames to hopefully withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. The design certainly seems to have been proven to be fairly seismic-resistant as only about 5% of the 'gingerbread houses' collapsed after the 2010 earthquake, against 40% of all other structures. Could this be a model for the future?

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Haiti's distinctive architectural heritage is now seriously under threat by the weather, age of the materials and the cost of any restoration work. There are hopes to turn some areas into a cultural heritage district, charging tourists an entry fee to see the buildings, which in turn can be turned into restaurants, shops and accommodation. Currently they are leased to local 'guardians', with up to half a dozen families sharing one of the large houses. Others are turned into a medical centre or a law firm (not "love home", as David heard)

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Having our own car, driver and guide is beneficial in so many ways, including being dropped off right by the sites we want to visit and having someone knowledgable to explain the culture and history of the places we are visiting.

Having a man with insider knowledge also opens doors, sometimes quite literally. Serge is somehow able to get us in to the closed off Champ de Mars square in Downtown Port au Prince.

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The square is where 20,000 Haitians created a tent city after their homes had been tumbled following the 2010 earthquake, or they were too scared to return to their own houses. Today there is no sign of the refugees, nor of the damaged National Palace.

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The National Palace after the earthquake

There are, however, monuments honouring some of the important people in the history of Haiti.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Dessalines arrived in Haiti from Guinea as a slave, working on plantations in Cap Haitien where he rose to become foreman. In 1791 he joined the slave rebellion and led the successful revolution towards liberating the country. Dessalines was the first ruler of independent Haiti from 1801 until he later crowned himself Emperor Jacques I of Haiti (1804–1806). He is regarded as a founding father of Haiti.

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Alexandre Pétion
Another of the 'Founding Fathers' of Haiti, Pétion was born to a wealthy French father and a free mulatto woman. After the revolution, he became the first President of the Republic of Haiti from 1806 until his death in 1818.

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St. Jean Bosco Massacre Memorial
Memorial to the people killed on 11th September 1988 when a Catholic Church was set on fire by the National Army during a mass led by the future president Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

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Toussaint Louverture
Born to slaves from Benin, Louverture, also known as 'Toussaint Bréda', was freed at 33 years old and went on to lead the slave uprising and Haitian Revolution in 1791. He was captured by forces sent by Napoleon to restore French Authority on the island in 1802 and deported to France, where he died a year later.

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Neg Marron
Memorial to the 'Unknown Slave', the maroons who ran away from their masters, hiding in the forest, communicating with other slaves by blowing a conch shell - the start of the uprising leading to the Haitian Revolution.

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The Ex-Eternal Flame
This is where Papa Doc held his vodou rituals – I am not sure why the flame is no longer eternal.

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Bicentenary Monument
This is another ex-flame – Artiste's monument celebrating 200 years of liberty is also supposed to be topped by a torch.

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High Court
Also on the square is the High Court, built in the place where the National Palace once stood before it was ruined by the earthquake.

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In front of the High Court stand two golden lions, controversially taken from Sans Souci Palace in Cap Haitien.

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All around the square are vendors selling paintings, leather shoes and ice cream – it seems even the police find today's weather a little on the hot side...

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Musée du Panthéon National
Haiti's National Museum is an underground space topped with a sculpture garden at street level. The structure started life as a mausoleum built by Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier) for his father François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. After his wife suggested the building should be a 'memorial to the forefathers' instead, the current museum was born.

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The strange looking 'chimneys' on the roof represent the shape of the Taino huts (the original inhabitants of Haiti). They also help let light into the exhibition hall, as we found out during a power cut!

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The compact and historically interesting museum does not allow photography inside unfortunately.

There are seven sections within the museum, covering Haiti's history from the Taino Indians, through the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the slavery years and subsequent revolt, liberty, to modern times. I always find slavery exhibitions particularly harrowing: the thought of man's inhumanity to man terrifies and appals me.

Some items of particular interest in the museum are the bell of independence from 1793; the anchor from Colombus' ship the Santa Maria which ran aground off the northern coast of Haiti in 1492; a small rock from the moon brought back by the Apollo 11, the pistol with which king Henri Christophe committed suicide; and a rather spectacular royal crown.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Built in 1884, all that remains after the 2010 earthquake are a few walls.

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Work is said to be under way to demolish and rebuild the cathedral; meanwhile a new church – constructed in the style of the original cathedral – houses the congregation until its completion.

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Unfortunately, Haiti is currently most well known for the magnitude 7.0 earthquake which hit the city of Port-au-Prince in 2010, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and one-and-a-half million people being left homeless. The epicentre was near the town of Léogâne, some 25 kilometres west of the capital, Port au Prince. It is estimated that 250,000 private homes, 30,000 commercial buildings, 4000 schools and over half the government buildings collapsed or were severely damaged during the quake or its many aftershocks. Damage and death toll was greatly exacerbated by existing poverty; poor housing conditions with densely-packed shanty towns and badly-constructed buildings; and widespread deforestation.

As this article in the Guardian points out:

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I feel totally overwhelmed just thinking about amount of injured victims (not to mention dead bodies); with rescue and aid efforts hampered by the devastation caused to communication systems, transport (main roads were blocked and the seaport rendered useless), hospitals, and electrical networks.

The images on the news were heartbreaking.

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In the aftermath, political, humanitarian and medical chaos ensued, with sporadic violence and looting. A cholera outbreak which is believed to have been introduced to the country by UN Peacekeepers has claimed nearly 9,000 lives and made hundreds of thousands of people sick. The country is still in the throes of a massive health crisis.

Lynch Mob
Just around the corner from the cathedral, we run across some sort of demonstration. One young man is being beaten about the head and torso by an angry mob, and I am told by a number of gesticulating crowd members to put my camera away. Not being one to toe the line, I snap a few (really bad) covert pictures anyway. As the 'offender' is led away, we make our way towards the Oloffson Hotel for lunch.

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Hotel Oloffson is probably Port au Prince's most famous and well loved gingerbread house, and featured in Graham Greene's novel the Comedians (as Hotel Trianon). Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis and Mick Jagger were regular guests in the 70s and 80s.

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The hotel is like a peaceful oasis, far away from the country's turmoil and catastrophes, with its faded glory of Gothic spires, elegant latticework and decorative wooden shutters. It's like entering not just a different world, but another epoch.

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Built in the late 1800s as a private home for the ruling Sam family, it was later used as a hospital during the US occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934. In 1935, the house was leased by a Swedish sea captain called Werner Gustav Oloffson, whose wife turned the building into a hotel to relieve the boredom during her husband's long absences while on sea voyages. The name still sticks today.

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The hotel has changed hands a few times since then, and is currently run by a Vodou priest. At the entrance to the hotel stands the statue of Baron Samedi, the Vodou spirit of sex, death and resurrection.

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Hotel Oloffson is a beautiful old Victorian style mansion, full of quaint decorations suitable for a place run by a Vodou priest.

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As well as conducting vodou ceremonies, Richard Morse, the owner of the hotel, is also the founder of a mizik raisin band called RAM, whose music 'incorporates traditional Vodou lyrics and instruments, such as rara horns and petwo drums, into modern rock and roll. ' They play here at the Oloffson every Thursday night.

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From the beams above the balustrades, hang small plastic bags filled with water. These have me totally perplexed, but Serge explains that the are mosquito repellents. Apparently the flies see their own much enlarged reflections in the bags and are frightened off. An interesting and unconventional theory – I wonder how well it works?

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We choose a simple lunch – a Haitian Sandwich consisting of cheese, ham, avocado and pikliz, the local spicy coleslaw. Except it is really not at all spicy, much to my disappointment. It is probably toned down for tourists. I enjoy the fresh lemonade though, which is served au naturel with sugar in a separate bowl for tempering the tartness of the citrus. Very refreshing!

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David tries the Prestige, Haiti's locally produced and best-selling beer. Similar to an American style lager, it is very drinkable, but experience has taught me to avoid alcohol at lunchtime in the heat.

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Sundowners are a very different matter, however, and I later indulge in some fruity rum punch while we wait to meet up with Jacqui, the owner of the local tour operator.

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And what a delight and surprise Jacqui turns out to be! Not only is she from Bristol, our home city, we even have mutual friends there! What a small world!

Joining us for dinner, Jacqui advices us on the local food, and we try Lambi (conch with a creole sauce) and Tasseau de Boeuf (crispy fried beef with vegetables); both very nice.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:59 Archived in Haiti Tagged beer museum caribbean lizard slavery dove lumiere slaves haiti undiscovered_destinations papa-doc voyages_ oloffson_hotel port_au_prince premiere_beer rum_punch Comments (1)

London - Atlanta - Port au Prince

Haiti?

semi-overcast 30 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Ever since announcing our next holiday destination, I have been faced with questions such as “why?”, “where?”, “what's there?”... but mostly “is it safe?”. This, of course is nothing unusual for me; after all we have been to a fair few unconventional destinations over the years.

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The first time someone replied “I went there” I got really excited and started to quiz them about the country: the people, the customs, the sights... only to find they spent half a day on a private beach (in Cap Haitien) belonging to their cruise company. Sigh.

We did have a few safety concerns ourselves as a result of the elections which were due on the 17th January, then adjourned until the 24th and subsequently postponed indefinitely. As a result there have been a number of fierce and bloody demonstrations throughout the country, something we have been following quite closely through the media. The violence, however, is not directed at tourists, and with a guide and driver at our disposal, we should be able to avoid any volatile areas.

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My initial interest in Haiti as a travel destination was piqued back in the early 2000s after talking to a travel agent friend who'd been. We even got as far as arranging a tour of the country through the Bristol based tour operator he worked for at the time... and then political unrest hit the small Caribbean country (yet again) and the plans were shelved.

(And there's the answer for those of you who don't know where Haiti is, it is the western part of the Hispaniola island. The other – larger – part is much better known: Dominican Republic. People sometimes get Haiti confused with the South Pacific island of Tahiti, or they think it is in Africa.)

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So, fast forward 15 years or so, and we find ourselves yet again planning a trip to Haiti, this time courtesy of Undiscovered Destinations.

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Haiti is not exactly a popular tourist destination, something that is reflected in the lack of flights covering Port au Prince. I was hoping to fly via Miami and kill two birds with one stone by being able to catch up with our good friends Homer and Eddie, but after researching a LOT of options, it turned out that flying via Atlanta was way cheaper. Sorry guys.

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So... let's go!

The trip doesn't start well, with David realising that he's forgotten his wallet. By now we are half way to London, so he will just have to do without. (Thanks Lyn for rummaging through the clothes in his wardrobe to put his mind at ease that the wallet was in fact at home, not lost somewhere en route). So much for having a packing list, and double-, triple- and quadruple- checking it... I guess I will be paying for everything on this trip then.

We have booked the Extra Legroom seats for the long haul journey across the Atlantic, and it proves to be a wise move. Not only does it indeed offer lots of space, we are able to spread out and get a row to ourselves each!

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As usual, I am asleep on take-off and only wake up in time for the food – which incidentally is very good, especially the salted caramel ganache.

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The journey is mostly very pleasant, apart from the man whose breath is so bad I am convinced someone has farted; the chap who plays games on his mobile phone with the sound on, and the ***** on-flight games: who, in their wisdom, decided that touch screens on aircraft seat backs were a good idea?

Transit through Atlanta turns out to be a surprisingly smooth operation, with its self service immigration, friendly staff and total lack of queues. The luggage is just arriving as we get to the conveyor belt, but in our excitement we pick up someone else's bag. Fortunately David discovers it before leaving the hall – otherwise it could have been a nasty surprise, for us and them!

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Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport may be a mouthful to say, but it's not a bad place to spend a couple of hours. The airport itself is about as huge as its name and is the world's busiest airport by passenger traffic, with some 260,000 passengers daily through 207 departure gates! In 2011 Atlanta was named the world's most efficient airport - I can see why.

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While taking a few photos around the concourse, a charming young female staff member approaches us with the suggestion of including both of us in the picture. Although a pretty crap photographer, she is delightful, and we chat for a while, before going our separate ways.

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She may not be a good picture-taker, but we do forgive her, as she turns out to be working on the gate of our flight (which is as much of a surprise to her as it is to us). When she sees us, she grabs our boarding cards, heads over to her computer, and returns with new cards - upgraded boarding cards. What a darling! That more than makes up for an out-of-focus picture!

With not only better seats, but a whole row each (again), the flight from Atlanta to Port au Prince is a pleasure. More so when we get free cocktails - as described by the air stewardess, the Blue Chair Bay Island Punch (coconut rum, orange juice and cranberry) tastes like "vacation in a glass!"

The holiday has started!

On arrival at Port au Prince, we are met by Geffrard, our designated driver here in Haiti, who whisks us past the hustling porters, through the dump that is Port au Prince by night (insisting that we lock all the doors and wind the windows up) to Le Plaza Hotel.

And what an oasis it is, with leafy grounds surrounding a swimming pool, an open air restaurant, plenty of trees, and nicely air conditioned rooms. Too tired to eat dinner, we have a quick drink and retire to bed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:43 Archived in Haiti Tagged flight holiday virgin atlanta heathrow delta haiti hartsfield–jackson_atlanta-inte virgin-airlines trans-atlantic-flight undiscovered-destinations voyages-lumiere port-au-prince Comments (1)