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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)

Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

sunny 34 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

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

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

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

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

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

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Pimp my Truck

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

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

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

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

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Musée Canne à Sucre

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

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

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

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Taino artefacts

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

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

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

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

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Map showing where the slaves came from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Croix des Bouquets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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