A Travellerspoint blog

November 2016

Atlanta - London - Bristol

Home, sweet Home


View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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After a long overnight flight from Atlanta, we arrive at London Heathrow before 7am, still carrying the wall mask now known as Ram Ram. The customs here in the UK are totally disinterested and we sail through.

Having stayed overnight on our way out in a hotel near Terminal 5 and now arriving back to Terminal 3, we have to use the Heathrow Express Train to get back to the hotel and our car. I think next time we will probably splash out a little more and have the valet parking again where the driver meets us outside the arrival terminal with our car. It would have been especially good this time as we are carrying such a large item.

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From Terminal 3 to the hotel we also have to negotiate the Heathrow Hotel Hoppa shuttle bus, which fortunately is not full.

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Back home, we carefully undress Ram Ram, who thankfully survived the journey in one piece and is now well settled in his forever home along with a couple of his Haitian friends.

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And so ends our adventure to Haiti.

Thank you to Voyages Lumiere for all the ground arrangements in Haiti.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:19 Archived in England Comments (0)

Port au Prince - Atlanta

The long journey home


View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Today is going to be a very long day. Having got up at 04:20 to travel to the airport, we are dismayed to find that when we get there the terminal building is not even open yet, and there is already a long queue of passengers outside waiting to get in.

A small team of officials are on hand to ensure we all form an orderly queue, and to quickly admonish any would-be queue-jumpers. Suddenly there is a hive of activity, and before we know it, a porter grabs our bags and leads us past the long line of waiting passengers and in through the door. Although I am a little embarrassed by the unexpected and somewhat unnecessary VIP treatment, I am not exactly doing anything to prevent it happening either.

At the Delta check in desk I am told that Ram Ram – our beautifully wrapped wall sculpture (see yesterday's entry for details) – has to travel in the hold, and that it is going to cost me $108 through to London. I quibble that we have a free second bag from Atlanta to London and it can't possibly cost that much just from Port au Prince to Atlanta. She argues that this is the cost. We battle back and forth for some time, with me insisting to speak to the supervisor, and her insisting she is the supervisor.

Eventually, after a lot of pleading, shouting and threatening, I 'throw my toys out of the pram'. The supervisor agrees to let me try to take Ram Ram as hand luggage but warns that I am likely to be stopped at the gate and sent back to check him in. It is a risk I am willing to take, and we move on to obstacle number two: security screening (which also is not open yet). When we finally get to the front of the queue, Ram Ram is no problem at all and we breathe a sigh of relief.

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At passport control David and I go to different booths, and I am through in no time. I sit down at the gate to wait for David, and I am surprised at how long he is taking. It turns out that because we are travelling through the US, he is asked for the ESTA form (Visa Waiver Program). Despite having checked our ESTA for the security check before even being able to join the queue for check-in, as well as during the actual check-in process, and the boarding card being denoted with that fact; they won't let David go without seeing his physical ESTA form (so much for it being an Electronic System for Travel Authorization; thankfully had the sense to print it out!). There is, however, a slight problem there: I have that form and David has no way of contacting me to come back for him. Oops. They finally let him through, albeit reluctantly.

I think they have just delivered my consignment of Duty Free rum.

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When it is time to board the aircraft I notice that the same lady who checked us in is on duty and I do wonder if she is going to block Ram Ram for the sake of it so 'save face'. She doesn't. Ram Ram gets taken off for special screening, but is found to be harmless and he is allowed onto the aircraft with us. The crew put him in the coat cupboard in the first class cabin for the flight – they all love him.

Security Checks

In order to get as far as the aircraft seat we have had a number of checks, as follows:

1. Passport and tickets checked in order to be allowed to enter the terminal building.

2. Passport and ESTA documents closely examined before being allowed to join the queue for check in.

3. Passport, ticket and ESTA inspected on check-in.

4. Boarding cards checked at security, shoes off, bags x-rayed and passengers screened.

5. Passport control – passport and boarding card for me, plus the aforementioned ESTA check for David.

6. Passport and boarding card at the gate.

7. Manual pat-down and bag check before being allowed to board the plane.

8. Boarding card check on entering the plane.

Port au Prince - Atlanta

The flight is unremarkable, we have three seats for the two of us and can spread out.

At Atlanta there is a long queue for immigration, and David yet again doesn't pass through the automated self-check, but we have plenty of time (nearly six hours) here, so it doesn't really matter.

At least we don't have to collect our checked in luggage – as a 'favour' the supervisor in Port au Prince checked our bags in all the way to London (I didn't even know that was possible), and gave us a 'golden ticket' to show to staff here.

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We are not even given a second glance at customs in to the US, but as usual the body scanner causes all sorts of issues. The scary thing is that my panty-liners showed up but not the mobile phone I'd forgotten in my pocket!

At Homeland Security Ram Ram is undressed and re-dressed by a charming official with a sense of humour (they are few and far between!). He is even swabbed for drugs but again found to be completely innocent. The possibility had occurred to me that maybe the artist had been using drugs and some traces had somehow remained on the sculpture, but I needn't have worried. Ram Ram even gets a 'seal of approval' in the form of an 'INSPECTED' tape.

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After our last Atlanta Airport dining experience on the way back from Haiti in February (Read all about the most expensive pizza we ever ate here), we head straight for the airport train and the Food Court at Terminal E - still with Ram Ram in tow.

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We settle for a TGI Friday's, where David is delighted to find they serve cider! Of course that is a pure coincidence, we don't read the menus of all the restaurants to check before deciding where to eat. Much.

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The food is pretty good too, we both have Sizzling Chicken and Cheese, and it is nice to have mashed potato for a change rather than the ubiquitous fries which come with almost every meal in the hotel restaurants in Haiti. The bill is a fraction of what we paid last time too, so we are on to a winner here.

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Later we even stop for a cinnamon bun, but although it is nice, it is just not a Cinnabon!

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After a long and boring wait here at Atlanta, we finally get to board the Virgin Airways flight for the next leg of the journey home, just as the sun goes down.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:06 Archived in USA Tagged flight caribbean tickets atlanta delta air_travel passports haiti port_au_prince security_check voyages_lumiere delta_airways passport-control homeland_security virgina_airlines Comments (1)

Port au Prince: Street Photography

On the streets of the capital of the poorest country in the western hemisphere

sunny 34 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today is set aside for some street photography; again to compensate for the fact that last time we came many of the streets in Port au Prince were out of bounds for security issues surrounding the political demonstrations taking place at the time.

Bus Station

We start the day at the bus station, to see some of the many painted buses that are unique to Haiti. The chassis is imported (mostly from the US), whereas the body work and decorations are added here to create the ubiquitous Haitian style; with popular themes featuring religion, history, politics and local celebrities.

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The bus station also houses one of numerous street markets found in and around Port au Prince. With jobs being scarce, selling what little they can helps to supplement family income. There always seem to be way more stall holders than customers though, and most vendors sell very similar stuff.

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I love this guy's T-shirt slogan:

Eat a little pig
Take a little swig
Do a little jig

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Mobile pharmacy

Marché de la Croix des Bossales – the Slave Market

Situated in the place where the slaves arrived in Haiti, the Marché de la Croix des Bossales is the biggest market in Haiti and one of the largest in the Caribbean.

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Today parts of the market are a chaotic mess, a huge jumble of second-hand clothes imported from the US for resale.

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The import of second-hand clothes has all but killed the once-thriving tailor businesses in Haiti, as it is much cheaper to buy used clothing than to have items made for you by a craftsman. The few remaining tailors now specialise in uniforms and alterations.

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After commenting on how we seem to be as much of attraction to the locals as they are to us, Serge replies: “They don't see many foreigners, I never bring tourists here, only you!” I take that as a compliment.

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Pouchard drives slowly past the market stalls for me to carry out my 'trademark' drive-by-shootings (photographically speaking only, of course). Given the almost-stationary traffic, this is not a difficult task.

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Livestock Market

Since the earthquake, cattle is rarely seen at the markets in Haiti, these days it is mainly goats and chickens for sale.

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Never sleep under a defecating goat

A somewhat deranged woman gets most upset about me taking pictures, thinking I am photographing her. She does not calm down despite Serge's reassurance that I am only interested in pictures of the animals, and continues to shout obscenities even after the other workers try to calm her down.

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We make a swift exit before she gets over-exited, photographing the pigs on the way out. They don't seem to object to having their photo taken.

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How to transport your live goats

Slums

Leaving the port area, we travel through some serious slums.

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The area may be a ramshackle shanty-town, but their immediate surroundings are mostly tidy and I am impressed at how the residents have made the most of their situation and tried to brighten up their surroundings with a few plants.

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Bel Air

Serge takes us up in the hills for a better view of the sprawling market below. The Bel Air area is said to be a notorious hot spot of crime and poverty.

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According to Wikipedia, Bel Air is a “slum area of the city... Crime is widespread, and kidnappings and killings have created panic among the local population.... the murder rate in Bel Air reached 50 murders per 100,000 residents ”

The British Government doesn't have a much better view of the place either:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to the ... Bel Air neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince due to the risk of criminal activity”.

That's OK then.

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Raram No Limit

We meet a local celebrity: the main man behind the band Raram No Limit.

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He shows us some of the street art he and others have painted to brighten up the neighbourhood.

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Central Market

We head for one of the many other markets in town, to look for a belt for David. The market is crowded, with mud and debris everywhere and some interesting stalls.

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The beauty of shopping in a place like this is that you don't have to go to the vendors, they come to you.

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More Street Art

David gets his belt, and we return to the down-town area of Port au Prince for some more street art, this time on the walls of the fence surrounding the University.

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Lunch

After taking a lot of ribbing over the last week from my Facebook friends about always posing with a drink in my hand, I decide to prove that I don't normally have alcohol at lunchtime.

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Look, no drink!

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Only fresh lemon juice

It doesn't seem to convince my friends much though.

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Packing

Time to get ready for the return to the UK. Packing shouldn't take long, although we need to ensure the new mask goes in the case first and everything else can be wrapped around it. There is only one 'slight' problem – the sculpture – who we have named Ram Ram – is way too big for the bag. Oops. It didn't look that big when I bought it....

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The guys on the hotel reception kindly let us have some newspapers and cellotape to wrap him in, but it soon becomes apparent that he needs more, especially if he is to travel in the cargo hold of the plane.

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I send a text to Jackie, our local agent Voyages Lumiere, asking her where I can get some bubble wrap, and less than an hour later her driver Pouchon turns up at our hotel with a huge roll of the stuff! Now that is what I call great customer service!

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I think Ram Ram is now ready for his journey of a life-time to his forever home in England.

Drinks and Dinner

Just to keep my Facebook friends happy (believe that and you believe anything), we order some 'proper' pre-dinner drinks: Plaza punch (with plenty of rum) and some white wine.

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Everyone makes sure their cocktails match their outfit for the night, right?

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After an interesting dish of chicken in red wine and vanilla sauce, it is time to say goodnight as we are getting up very early tomorrow morning for our flight home.

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Thank you to Voyage Lumiere for yet another fantastic holiday in Haiti. You guys are the best!

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Posted by Grete Howard 06:08 Archived in Haiti Tagged market public_transport caribbean buses photography bus_station pigs goats livestock pig_market haiti port_au_prince street_photography voyages_lumiere le_plaza painted_buses second_hand_clothes marche_de_la_croix_des_bossales slave_market _goat_market Comments (1)

Port au Prince: Marché de Fer and Atiz Rezistans

Iron Market and Craft Centre

34 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Iron Market (Marché de Fer)

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As we were unable to reach this – one of Haiti's most important civic landmarks - on our last visit because of the political rallies taking place, we have set aside a morning to explore its sales halls.

Shipped over from France in 1891, the structure was originally destined for Cairo, where it was going to become a railway station; but the deal fell through so it ended up here in Port au Prince instead. No-one is quite sure why or how.

The iconic market was badly destroyed during the 2010 earthquake, but has since been rebuilt and is yet again the focus of the city's vendors.

Notorious for its overwhelming atmosphere and high-pressure aggressive salesmen, it is with some trepidation we enter the first of the two halls, which contains a number of food and everyday household items for sale.

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Manioc

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Plantain Smasher

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Star anise

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Gourds and dried mushrooms

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Great selection of fancy shoes

Herbal Medicine
Many locals prefer to rely on alternative medicine, and we see several stalls selling a great variety of herbal infusions.

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For medicinal purposes only?

No salesmen have bothered us so far, but I guess the other hall – full of Vodou paraphernalia, artists and souvenirs, is where it is all happening as far as the tourist goes.

Here we see all sorts of 'creations' – I find the ones featuring dolls (of which there are many) - somewhat unnerving.

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Other - equally macabre - items are produced from and around human skulls. Real human skulls that is.

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When the slaves were brought over from Africa, they were forbidden to practice their Vodou religion, so would disguise their art behind a veil of Catholic saints. Today the two merge into one as far as art goes.

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The bowls of turtles intrigue me, and Serge explains that they are used for rituals. The turtle is not killed, merely drained of some blood, which is mixed with rum and coffee (isn't everything over here?), and given to pregnant women to protect the foetus from evil spirits.

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Candles used for ceremonies

The last part of the market is dedicated to souvenirs, and although we are approached by the stall holders and encouraged to browse their goods, they are not what I would call 'aggressive', or even particularly persistent. Perhaps this is down to the fact that Serge has spent years trying to discourage them; maybe it's because we have taken one of the stallholders as a guide, or it could be that we are just so used to it from our many travels through Africa and Asia that we just ignore it. While Haiti does not receive many tourists as such, the great number of visiting diaspora are the main buyers of these items, wanting to take a small piece of their home-land back to the US (or wherever) with them.

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From the Iron Market we make our way across town to the area known as Grand Rue (Main Street) through the labyrinthine warren of back streets in neighbourhoods dedicated entirely to car scrap yards and recycling.

Atis Rezistans – the Sculptors of Grand Rue

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It is not immediately obvious where the junk-yard ends and the art museum / gallery begins.

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The artists in this tight-knit community use salvaged wood, discarded car parts and household items to create bold, radical and warped sculptures.

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E Pluribus Unum”: out of many, one.

Compelling and whimsical, sometimes disturbing, often absurd, always extraordinary, each piece of art has a story behind it and a meaning to it, although the latter can be very elusive to the non-initiated.

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This open-air gallery is crammed full of sculptures, the focus seemingly being on ghoulish representations, although I am told the symbology is based on slavery, death and rebirth, Vodou, Christianity and the occult.

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Fetish, sexuality and anatomy are recurring themes in these fantastical creations reborn from discarded everyday items.

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And of course the ever-present human skulls grinning at us as we walk past.

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“Who buys this stuff” I ask André Eugéne – the founder of the art museum – as he invites us in to see his studio and bedroom. “It is mainly art collectors from all over the world, rarely locals” he explains. The interior of his work-and-living-space is dimly lit – by a human skull with red and green bulbs in its eye sockets. Not exactly what I would like to wake up to after a night on the rum.

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As we are leaving, I take a fancy to a mask hanging by the exit. “Everything here is for sale” says Eugéne, but I recoil when he ask for $400. “That is way out of my reach” I explain. “How much?” asks Eugéne hopefully and I throw back an almost derisory offer of $100, which is immediately rejected for double that. I explain that this price is still way too high for me and walk away. Eugéne calls me back, money changes hands and I am now the 'proud' owner of an 'original' piece of Haitian art. More on that tomorrow.

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Kids' Place – a Street Kid Project

Children between the ages of 10 and 17 are encouraged to create their own art and have been given a small shack in which to display and sell their creations.

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We - no, correction, I - buy another mask for our collection. David looks at me and shakes his head. Evidently he and I do not share the same taste in art.

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The kids are cute and love playing up for the camera.

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Le Plaza Hotel – chill time

After a morning of 'culture', the 'arts' and shopping, we have some free time this afternoon. Inspired (encouragingly 'bullied') by my friend Ian to use my macro lens, I take a few close-up pictures of everyday items in the restaurant.

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Ice cubes in my ginger ale

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The metal table

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Salt Pot

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Bubbles and condensation on my glass

Levitation Trick

The rest of the afternoon is spent in and around the swimming pool - first to create some trick photography.

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So how are these created? Quite simple really – one photo of David on a chair, and one photo of just the scene (making sure that the camera is in the identical position), then layer them in Photoshop and remove the chair. Voila!

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Later we fool around in the pool with my little waterproof camera, until the sun goes down and the lights come on.

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Dinner

After a quick shower we wander down to the restaurant for dinner. Although they do have an air-conditioned dining room, we make the most of the lovely warm evening by sitting outside in the leafy courtyard.

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David enjoys a cold Premiere beer in a frosted glass

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Prawn skewers with garlic mango sauce

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Filet mignon with creamy mushroom sauce

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I take great pleasure in a refreshing Plaza Punch after dinner, before it is time to say goodnight.

Thank you Jacqui from Voyages Lumiere for arranging this amazing trip to Haiti for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:27 Archived in Haiti Tagged art craft masks hotel market sculpture pool photography souvenirs mask swimming_pool artists haiti recycling port_au_prince vodou le_plaza le_plaza_hotel atis_rezistans sculptors scrap_yard atis_resizistans_vodou_art vodou_art iron_market marché_de_fer mask_collection 2010_earthquake fun_in_the_pool waterproof_camera levitaion_photography _levitation_trick levitation andre_eugene Comments (0)

Port au Prince: Fet Gede / Day of the Dead

Party in the cemetery, believers possessed by their dead ancestors and sacrificed goats - it is all happening today!

36 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Fet Gede

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Today we are setting out to see, experience and photograph the Fet Gede – the reason we made this return journey to Haiti.

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As a photographer, I have never perfected the art of travelling light.

Fet Gede, the 'Feast of the Ancestors', is a traditional Vodou festival which celebrates the Lwa (spirits) of death and fertility; a time when believers honour the ancestral dead who they regard as walking with us all our lives. Gede (the sacred ancestors) is considered an important part of every living person as we will all join them eventually.

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Fet Gede can be described as the Vodou equivalent of Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and Halloween, all rolled into one incredible ritual with enough drumming, singing, alcohol and laughter to quite literally raise the dead. The Fet Gede celebrations are unique to Haiti, a blend of traditions brought over from Africa during the slave trade, mixed with colonial Christianity and a dash of ritual from the original Taino inhabitants of the island.

Haitians believe that the frisky Vodou spirits helped them win independence and become the world's first black republic. Tradition marks the beginning of the revolution at a vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, where the call to arms was issued by a Houngan (Vodou priest), and within hours, the northern plantations were in flames. The rebellion spread through the entire colony and the rest is history as they say.

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Grand Cimetiére

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We start the day with a visit to the main cemetery. As you do. The Grand Cimetiére in Port au Prince is like a city for the dead within the living city. Like many cemeteries, it mirrors real life in its layout. Here you find various 'neighbourhoods': crowded slums with rotting tombs and muddy graves; stately communities with fabulous mausoleums, middle class suburbs and even a main boulevard.

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We can't get anywhere near the cemetery by car due to the enormous crowds of people. After a lot of hassle, Wilson (today's driver) manages to find a spot where he can stop long enough for us all to get out. We are joined today by Sam from New York and a group of five international architect student who are here to learn the art of building bamboo houses. After shuffling our way through the crowds, we enter the necropolis through the main gate which reads “Souviens-Toi Que Tu Es Poussiere” (remember you are dust).

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The cemetery is teeming with life and people thronging through the narrow alleyways. We make our way along the main boulevard, along with thousands of others. The atmosphere is convivial and friendly, with not a hint of sinister or threatening undertones.

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Kwa Baron (Cross of Baron)

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Vodouists come in a spiritual pilgrimage to the cemetery to pay their respect to the dead, but first, permission of passage has to be obtained. The grave of the Papa Gede, the first man who ever died. Ancestral services are held at this 'crossroad', considered to be the bridge between life and death. Kwa Baron is the Lwa guardian of the cemetery and head of the Gedes.

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So, who is Papa Gede?
The corpse of the 'first man' can in many ways be compared to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who is revered at memorials throughout the world - he may not necessarily be Haitian - just like the Baron is not Haitian nor African, he may be 'other' (foreign). Papa Gede is a psychopomp who waits at the crossroads to take departed souls into the afterlife, although he does not take a life before its time. Papa Gede has a very crude sense of humour, and a cunning ability to read people's minds, knowing everything that happens in the worlds of the living and the dead.

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Skulls and bones are removed from the crypts and turned into a makeshift shrine

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Pimam

Making an offering of Pimam (a mixture of raw rum known as clairin and 21 habareno chillies) is said to help the Gede (ancestral spirits) become warm and passionate again. Having been 'sleeping in the cold', the rum and chillies helps to 'heat them up' so that they can offer advice on such things as job hunting, love and marriage.

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The floor is awash with rum (and also coffee, which has been offered by the cup-full too). The smell is quite overpowering, and the bottom of my jeans are soaked in the stuff. I guess I'd better wash those before going on the flight back to the UK. We brave the crowds to venture further into the maze of alleyways in the cemetery.

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Baron Kriminel ('Baron of Criminals') is the enforcer of the Gede. As the first person to commit murder, he is Gede of murderers and perpetrators of violence against others; thus victims' relatives pray to him for revenge. His 'chevals' (possessed followers) are said to have an insatiable appetite for food, biting and chewing on anything and anyone (even themselves), they will attack those around them until they get fed. Thankfully none of the chevals present today seem to be possessed, as I don't fancy becpming breakfast.

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There is nothing formal about any of the celebrations here, people push and shove, stand on the graves to get a better view, and even put their feet on the altar.

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All this, and the enormous crowds everywhere, makes photography a real challenge! I am impressed, however, at how the sea of people seems to magically open up as I try to get closer to the action – spectators actively move aside and even encourage others to do so in order for me to see what is going on. Lots of locals are photographing the event too, and even the TV and radio stations are out in force.

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The occult has always fascinated me, and voodoo is no exception. In reality, voodoo is one of the most misunderstood religions in the world, something I became more and more aware of as I did my research some ten years ago before our trip to West Africa. The word 'Voodoo' is in fact a bastardisation by Hollywood of 'vodoun', the original West African religion (also known as vodun). (One interesting observation here is that ‘voodoo’ passes the spellchecker in Word, ‘vodoun’, ‘vodun’ or the Haitian version of the religion, known as vodou, do not.) Hollywood also gave the world the idea that vodoun (or voodoo) is an evil black magic cult setting out to spread death and destruction. Films like the James Bond ‘Live and let Die’ also fuelled this misapprehension with its violence and bizarre rituals. Ask an average member of the public what they first think about when they hear the word ‘voodoo’ and they are most likely to answer something along the lines of ‘black magic’, ‘zombies’, ‘human sacrifice’ or ‘sticking pins in dolls’. I would love to be able to say “nothing is further from the truth”, but of course there are some associations to all of these within the vodoun religion, but there is so much more to it.

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Vodoun is a religion that can trace its roots back at least 6,000 years; some sources claim 10,000. It is freely practised in West Africa, and was in fact accepted as the state religion of Benin in 1996 where 80% of the population is followers. It is believed that over 60 million people practise vodoun worldwide, 30 million of which are thought to be in West Africa. Vodoun is widespread throughout the Caribbean, notably on Haiti where vodou was proclaimed the state religion in 2003 where is is popularly stated that the people are 80% Catholics and 110% vodouists. It is also found in Brazil, the Guianas, Dominican Republic and parts of USA, introduced by the slaves.

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Vodou in Haiti

There are also an awful lot of misconceptions that vodou originated in Haiti. Yes, it is the state religion in Haiti, but it was brought here by the slaves from West Africa during the French colonial time, when it mixed with local Taino religious beliefs and European mysticism, taking on a camouflage veneer of Roman Catholicism after it was outlawed by the slave masters.

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Vodou (a derivation of the West African Vodun and the New Orleans Voodoo) is mysterious and complicated, inherently mistrusted, frequently maligned and often misunderstood religion. Its reputation was badly tarnished by the 1960s dictator Papa Doc, who encouraged his people to believe he was Baron Samedi, the vodou spirit of darkness and dead. Most westerner's exposure to Haitian Vodou is through Hollywood portrayals such as the 1973 James Bond's Live and Let Die blockbuster (in which Baron Samedi featured as a villain), something that has created further suspicion and discredit in Vodou as a serious religion.

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Having witnessed a Vodun ceremony first hand in Benin in West Africa a few years ago, I was keen to find out a little more about how this enigmatic, cabbalistic doctrine plays out for the Haitians.

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Vodou ceremony in Benin 2006

I have tried to gain some sort of understanding of Vodou, and here I will try and give you a very brief synopsis of what I have gleaned from talking to our guide and other Haitians, as well as various websites.

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Lwa

Their top dog – the Supreme Creator – is called Bondye but doesn't really want to have anything much to do with mere mortals, so the people direct their worship towards one or more of the many spirits, known as Lwa. Each Lwa has a particular aspect of life which they are responsible for – much in the same way as Christian saints, Hindu deities and Greek gods. Voduists create altars, participate in ritual ceremonies involving music and dance; and make offerings to appease their chosen Lwa.

There is no one definitive form of Vodouism, each priest has a different style of worship, depending on the Lwas his 'house' honours. Priests can be either male (houngan) or female (mambo) and are said to have supernatural power to hurt or kill people in addition to doing good by helping and protecting others from spells of course. A Haitian Vodou temple is called an Hounfour or Peristyle.

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The Lwa and the humans belong to each other and are interdependent – the humans supply food, the Lwa provides protection from evil spirits, health and good fortune.

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In Vodouism, your soul is said to take the form of two parts – the Big Good Angel (gros bon ange) or Little Good Angel (ti bon ange). Big Angel is in charge of the more physical aspects of your life, such as breathing and the flow of blood; whereas Little Angel is the ruler of your personality, nature and willpower – basically, the Big Angel decides what to do and the Little Angel works out how to do it.

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Unlike the evil portrayed by popular media, Vodou moral code of conduct focusses on the vices of dishonour and greed, on love and support within the family, respecting your elders and giving alms to the poor. Much like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and most other religions.

Baron Samedi

The ruler of the graveyard and the Lwa of the Dead and is known for disruption, obscenity, debauchery, and having a particular fondness for tobacco and rum. Sounds like my kinda guy.

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Baron Samedi is a very sexualised Lwa, frequently represented by phallic symbols such as this skeletal hand between his legs.

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Fet Gede celebrations are huge here in Haiti and everywhere we go in the cemetery there are people taking photos and videos; plus all the TV and radio stations. Here Baron Samedi is interviewed for the daily TV news.

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While most devotees are merely here at the cemetery out of curiosity, some come to worship, and a small number of believers actually become possessed by the Lwa (spirits). As this guy goes in to a trance, he loses control of his senses, flails his arms and legs around and staggers about as if he has been given a hefty push in a drunken stupor. As we are all on top of a crypt at this stage, with steep steps and a throng of people, there are a few hairy moments as he tumbles down through the crowds and onto the ground below. Fortunately no-one is hurt on this occasion and he is helped by a number of bystanders as he recovers from his bewildering state of possession.

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Erzulie

This tree represents Erzulie, the Haitian African Lwa (spirit) of love and passion. She is fond of money and clothes, but especially of doll, and she enjoys receiving them as gifts.

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Devotees come here to attach dolls to the tree, in order to send messages to their dead loved ones and ancestors; which in turn will then ensure that Erzulie brings them luck. This practice is thought to have been the base of the misunderstanding and misinformation (perpetuated by popular media) that Vodouists stick pins in dolls to cause harm to their enemies.

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Peristyle - The Vodou Temple

From the cemetery we continue (via the supermarket for water and toilet stop) up into the hill towards Petionville to attend a vodou service to commemorate Fet Gede, the Feast of the Ancestors (or Day of the Dead).

Wilson drives the minibus as far as he can up roads that become narrower and more uneven as we climb higher. Eventually we reach a point where the road has been washed away (possibly by the recent hurricane?) and the surface is down to the bedrock. We scramble up further on foot and enter a series of tight alleyways occupied by children and goats. There is no sign of the Vodou Temple until we are right upon it and even then it is unrecognisable as a place of worship as we know it.

The immediate area outside the temple is full of people hanging around, smoking, drinking and chatting. There is an 'off-licence' by the entrance where worshippers can buy their rum for offering and personal consumption.

The temple itself can best be described as a small wooden shack, the inside of which is beautifully adorned with white and purple balloons, Halloween-style decorations and an altar awash with offerings - people bring with them food or drink particularly enjoyed by their ancestors when they were alive.

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Music

A group of special people, known as houn'torguiers, provide the music in the form of shaking rattles, playing drums and blowing a trumpet. Three drums, covered with ox-hide, provide the rhythm. They represent the three atmospheres of the sun: the largest represents the chromospheres, the middle one the photosphere, and the smallest one the solar nucleus. The instruments have to be purified prior to the ceremony.

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Everyone seems to be taking photos or recording video, and the TV crew are in attendance with their huge camera and microphone. As was the case in the cemetery, we are the only white people here.

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Maman Brigitte

Soon after we arrive, the ritual reaches a crescendo as (a devotee possessed by) Maman Brigitte (Baron Samedi's wife), frees the souls of the followers. She is a colourful character, both in appearance and speech, and is known as the guardian of the dead. As a psychopomp, she leads the dead to the afterlife.

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Dancing

Dancing is an expression of spirituality, and is seen as a connection with divinity and the spirit world. The dancing and drumming intensifies repeatedly and repetitively until the dancer is possessed by their Lwa, by which stage they appear to completely lose control of their body and some even appear to lose consciousness. Their limbs go stiff, they appear to fall backwards of they flail their arms and legs about, thrashing anyone and everyone in their way. This is the Lwa’s way of having a bit of fun with the devotee.

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Vodou devotees believe that everyone has a soul which is made up of two parts: a gros bon ange or 'big guardian angel', and a ti bon ange ('little guardian angel'). The ‘little angel’ is the one that leaves the body when the Lwa possess the dancers during a ritual, and it can be quite scary at times to watch. The Lwa will take over every movement of that person, they become the spirit and are no longer themselves, and the spirit will talk through the possessed – sometimes in a language they do not understand or even knew before they were possessed. The Lwa will convey – through the possessed – advice, desires and warnings.

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During the Vodou service, prayers are offered to the Lwa, followed by songs for the Lwa accompanied by shaking a calabash rattle (asson) filled with rattlesnake bones, as well as hypnotic drumming. Like many Hindu devotees, most Haitians have a 'favourite' Lwa, and as 'their' song is played, they believe that the spirit takes possession of their body and is thereby able to speak and act through them. They trust that by following the directives and taboos imposed by their particular Lwa, the Lwa will help them in life, enabling them to discard any toxic influences from the past as well as offering thanks to the ancestors and accepting beneficial help for the future. Fet Gede is a celebration for reconnecting with the past, and preparing for the future. By offering insight into the past, Fet Gede frees people from any futile or unacceptable patterns and habits that they may inadvertently repeat, thus preparing them for a better future where greater happiness can be achieved. Conversely, by ignoring the advice of the Lwa, all sorts of misfortunes will befall the worshipper.

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Other worshippers help the Houngan (Vodou priest) to stay cool (if that is at all possible in the stifling heat inside the Peristyle) while he is possessed.

The Gédé spirits are lewd and raucous, and those possessed by them during ceremonies can be wildly provocative and sexually charged – like this guy tying a goat to his belt by a rope, and simulating sex with it on the dance floor.

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Chanting

Chanting is also an integral part of the Vodou ceremony. The chorus is made up of a group of people, led by a strong spiritual devotee. The idea of the chanting is to attract the Lwa on the astral plane in order to draw them down to earth.

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Pimam

Pimam is an 'altar wine' made from klarin (Haitian moonshine) with habareno peppers – it can quite literally be described as 'fire water.' Once a worshipper is 'possessed', he (or she) drinks or rubs themselves with the pimam as a signal that they are really a Gede (spiritual ancestor), in other words: dead and need warming up.

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Devotees also sprinkle alcohol on the ground to attract the spirits.

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Sacrifice

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Fet Gede celebrations nearly always involve an animal sacrifice (never virgins I am assured!). Since the earthquake in 2010 goats and chickens are favoured over cows.

Unble to bear the heat inside any longer, we leave the temple for some fresh air (not that it is much cooler outside), and almost immediately Serge beckons me to come down a set of stairs with him.

There, without much pomp and circumstance, is a goat with his throat being slit.

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The blood is drained into a bowl as the head is severed off completely.

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The rest of the body is slung aside (still kicking) while the next goat is fetched.

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The goat is hit over the head with a mallet to stun it, then stabbed in the skull with a sharp knife.

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The blood from the bowl is smeared on the forehead and tongue of believers (who have paid 50 gourdes for the privilege). By drinking the blood whilst possessed by the Lwa, it is believed that the Lwa’s hunger is satisfied and the devotee will receive forgiveness for any wrongdoings.

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After the sacrifice has taken place, the animal is cooked and shared out amongst the villagers. This way, nothing goes to waste. The killing of an animal is believed to release life, which the Lwa receive to rejuvenate themselves during the rapture of the ceremony.

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Still overwhelmed and buzzing from the powerful experiences today, we return to our hotel to get ready for a night out with Jacqui from Voyages Lumiere.

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Jacqui brings along her friend Kelli from the US who has just adopted an adorable little Haitian girl called Vanedjina.

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We have a lovely relaxing evening with good food and great company – the perfect way to end a frantic but captivating day.

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Thank you Voyage Lumiere for making this happen.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:17 Archived in Haiti Tagged altar temple travel vacation skeleton cemetery halloween crowds holiday necropolis tv dancing drums photography coffee killing candles spirits graves bones goat skulls ancestors rum sacrifice crypt celebration voodoo dolls mardi_gras haiti offerings crossroads trance day_of_the_dead chanting peristil port_au_prince baron_samedi vodou possessed fet_gede fete_guede fet_guede fete_gede gede feast_of_the_ancestors lwa loa vodum vodoun grand_cimetiere kwa_baron cross_of_baron papa_gede tomb_of_the_unknown_soldiers pimam clairin clarin klarin maman_brigitte habarenos baron_criminal occult peristyle erzulie zonbiw erzulie_mayang vodou_temple voodoo_temple houn'torguiers psychopomp houngan mambo vodou_ceremony voodoo_ceremony Comments (0)

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