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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)

Montrouis - Port au Prince

Here comes the rain - briedfly

rain 33 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today is very much a non-event, as David is up at 04:00 with an upset tummy. He stays in bed while I go for breakfast, the whole morning, as well as while I enjoy lunch. Only as we are checking out to travel back to Port au Prince does he surface.

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Yummy fruit and French toast for breakfast

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While David stays in the air-conditioned room feeling sorry for himself, I soak up the last of the ocean views and some sunshine.

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Grilled cheese sandwich for lunch

I am feeling very much more alive on this journey than the one in the opposite direction a couple of days ago, and spend my time taking photos of the passing traffic which consists of overfilled tap-taps (open-sided small trucks used for passengers), hand carts, cows eating from rubbish tips, big Macks (the truck variety, not the burger), donkey carts, sleek modern buses, pedestrians and kamakazi goats dashing from one side of the road to the other through the crazy traffic!

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It's Monday, so it must be wash day!

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A new venture for a future ex-president?

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David, on the other hand, is not having a good day, and is violently sick on the journey. Thankfully - and much to Pouchons' relief - I always carry a sick bag.

Rain and flooding

Half way back to the capital, we encounter the much publicised rain; and it certainly looks like they have had a LOT of it here, judging by the flooding in the streets.

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Just a mile or so further on the rain has stopped and the roads are bone dry. Strange weather.

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Unlike the reverse journey, the freeway is running smoothly; but when we arrive in the capital, we hit a major traffic jam. Pouchon tries to avoid the standstill by cutting through some of the backstreets – areas with slums heavily ingrained with poverty like we've rarely seen anywhere in a capital city in the western world. Feeling very uncomfortable about taking photos (for safety and ethical reasons), I do snap a few covert pictures from inside the mini-van.

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Le Plaza Hotel

Arriving back here is like coming home; and the receptionist, remembering us from last week, greets us like long lost friends.

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Samantha, our gorgeous waitress this evening, gives us a French lesson as she takes our order. Just afterwards, a heavy peal of thunder is followed by a power cut. Just as I have found the torch in my bag, the lights come back on again.

My Tassot de Boeuf (fried beef in spicy sauce) is very tasty, and I have forgotten how delicious their piclis (spicy coleslaw) is!

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David takes two bites from his Poulet Pays au Noix (Haitian chicken with nuts) and immediately feels nauseous again.

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I order a cappuccino after dinner, but when Samantha comes back to tell me they have run out, I am 'forced' to have a piña colada. It's a hard life.

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We speak to Jacqui from Voyages Lumiere (who kindly arranged our trip to Haiti) to confirm the details of our itinerary for the next couple of days, before retiring for the night.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:45 Archived in Haiti Tagged travel hotel holiday caribbean sick trucks haiti mack nausea port_au_prince voyages_lumiere le_plaza montrois le_plaza_hotel nauseous upset_tummy Comments (0)

Montrouis - Moulin sur Mer beach resort

More chill time

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

I am up early this morning for some bird watching in and around the hotel grounds.

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Yellow Faced Grassquit

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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Palmchat

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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White Necked Crow

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Bananaquit

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American Kestrel

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Grey Kingbird

The hotel also has domestic ducks and geese on its ponds; as well as a pigeon loft.

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Breakfast

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Lots of lovely fresh mango, and French toast with bacon - one of my favourite breakfasts!

Montrouis Beach

Apart from a conch shell salesman, and a sunbed stacker, we have the beach to ourselves this morning.

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It is blisteringly hot and suddenly my tummy doesn't feel good at all. In fact, it is so sudden that I don't make it back to the bathroom on time – a most unpleasant experience.

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You'll be glad to know that there are no photos of my little "accident".

Lunch

Today is Sunday, so lunch is a buffet.

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Chicken curry, national rice, fried plantains, creamed corn and tomato salad

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A delightfully tart passionfruit mousse

Rain? What rain?

The forecast for this weekend (and beyond) has consistently showed rain, rain and more rain, plus the odd thunder shower. There is certainly no sign of that this afternoon, the sea is sparkling in the sunshine.

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We sit for a while just gazing out to sea and those mesmerizing sparkles of sunshine dancing across the water like little luminous fairies. Life is good, until my tummy tells me that the lunch is an unwelcome guest and is about to be evicted, so we retire to the cool room. Next door is a lovely local family who are here for the weekend with their small child. I am unconcerned when I hear hear the key being turned in the connecting door as it is surely locked from both sides; but before I have had the chance to say “I'd better put some clothes on”, the girl and her father are in our room. I don't know who is most shocked: the kid or her dad! For the rest of their stay he avoids all eye contact with me.

I guess that is my cue to get dressed and head out to wait for the sunset.

There are a few more people down at the beach this afternoon; both in and out of the water.

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Tonight's sunset is not a patch on yesterday's, but the 'Bushwacker' cocktail more than makes up for it: Khalua, Amaretto, Baileys, cream and ice cream. Heaven in a glass!

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What the evening sky lacks in terms of colour, intensity and clouds, it more than makes up for in a passing lightning storm.

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Dinner

On the menu tonight is langoustine thermador – one of my favourite dishes. It certainly lives up to expectations.

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Thank you to Jacqui of Voyages Lumiere for yet another day here in Haiti.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:05 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds sea water sunset ocean beach storm caribbean sleep drinking birding photography lightning thunder woodpecker cocktail haiti lightning_storm langoustine bird_watching kestrel american_kestrel moulin_sur_mer montrouis voyages_lumier twitcher hispaniolan_woodpecker grassquit yellow_faced_grassquit bananaquit kingbird grey_kingbird waterskiing bushwalker_cocktail langoustine_thermador Comments (0)

Port au Prince - Montrouis

Beach time!

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

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We have a nice leisurely start this morning before being picked up for the two hour journey to Montrouis and the Moulin sur Mer beach resort.

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Breakfast of hareng a l'haïtienne (herring in a spicy vegetable sauce), maïs moulu blanc (corn grits) and some sort of cake.

Unusually, we are spending the first two days of this trip in a beach hotel in order to acclimatise to the time zone and get used to the heat before we throw ourselves into the melee of the celebrations.

From the hotel we take the back-roads of Port au Prince out on to the main highway, with a couple of police checks on the way. Once on the main road, we encounter a massive traffic jam. We are both really struggling to stay awake for the journey, it must be the effect of the jetlag.

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Moulin sur Mer

We arrive at the beach resort around midday, and are greeted in the parking lot by a golf buggy, which takes us and our luggage down to reception and then on to our room.

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The room is nice and airy, with a large bathroom and a terrace outside. We leave the A/C on for the room to cool down, and go for lunch.

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Fresh mango juice

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Club sandwich (cheese, ham, egg and tuna) and 'Moulin' burger.

The restaurant is open air, but shaded by a roof, and looks out over the blue Caribbean sea.

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The hotel is spread out over a large area, and once we have filled our bellies, we explore the extensive grounds.

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Although the thermometer says 'only' 34 °C, it feels like it is way over 40 °C this afternoon with the humidity! We are both really struggling with the heat, and decide to go back to chill in the air-conditioned room.

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When we get there, the room is far from cool, instead it is stifling hot and whatever we do with the temperature on the remote control for the A/C unit, it remains so. After about an hour of slowly melting, we take another look at the controls, and realise that the settings were in fact on 'fan' rather than 'cool'! Doh! As soon as the air cools down a little, we both drift into a blissful and much needed siesta.

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Feeling very much more refreshed, we wander down to the beach and order a beer ready to watch the sunset over the sea.

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In the bay we overlook is a loud, obnoxious American (apologies to all my lovely American friends), who, as soon as he spots my camera, starts to shout out various camera settings. Maybe he is trying to be funny, but he just comes across as an insecure small man with a big ego and a small 'lens'. I try to ignore him, but he won't go away. Groan.

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Despite an insipid start, the sunset pans out very nicely and we stay and watch until there is no light left in the sky.

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After a quick shower and change, it is back to the restaurant for dinner – prawns in garlic for me, chicken goujons for David; followed by cheesecake which I can't finish as I am so full!

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Feeling completely shattered, we retire to the (now) cool room. I am not sure if it is the heat or the jetlag, but it seems to us that all we have done so far on this trip is to eat and sleep.

I would like to say THANK YOU to Jacqui of Voyages Lumiere for arranging this trip to Haiti for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:03 Archived in Haiti Tagged sea sunset beach travel hotel island breakfast sand caribbean resort hot heat beach_resort haiti herring voyages_lumiere hotel_le_plaza le_plaza moulin_sur_mer montrouis tap_tap 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)

Cap-Haïtien – Cormier Plage

Chill time!

semi-overcast 29 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day seven of our tour of Haiti by Undiscovered Destinations.

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

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Hispaniolan Woodpecker

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Palmchat

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White Necked Crow

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Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron

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

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Cathedrale Notre Dame de Cap-Haïtien

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

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Labadie

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

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

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

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

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View of the coastline

Cormier Plage

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

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

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

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View from the terrace

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

Predictably, the drink wins the day.

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

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

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

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

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

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Black Crowned Palm Tanager

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Broad Billed Tody

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Grey Kingbird

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Palmchat

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

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Hispaniolan Emerald

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

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

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

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

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Or should that be hammock?

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

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

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

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Chicken curry

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Diablo chicken

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

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

Port au Prince – Cap-Haïtien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What a star!

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Sans Souci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The palace complex also includes the Queen's apartments,

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her pool and fountain,

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

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

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

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We take our photos from the safety of terra firma.

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Citadelle la Ferrière

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And apparently a pizza oven!

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

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

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Lakou Lakay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cap-Haïtien

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

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

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

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Hotel Roi Christophe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Palmchat

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Grey Kingbird

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Plain Pigeon

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

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

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

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Dinner

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

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

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We have another couple of drinks before retiring to bed.

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

Jacmel Carnival

Party Time

semi-overcast 31 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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

Today's the day!

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

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

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

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Balcony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carnival

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

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

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

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

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I love the Haiti versions of the selfie stick.

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This guys has even got a smart watch!

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

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There are boys showing off their toys...

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… and references to Haiti's freedom from slavery.

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

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

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Transvestites feature heavily too.

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

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

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

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

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

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A little light relief before the Lanset Kod arrive.

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

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

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

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Or for a selfie of course...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We saw this outfit in the exhibition yesterday - Ati Brino. This was the explanation they offered: Created in 1975 by Sergio Anceon who disguised a donkey with human costumes. Because the people seemed to find this humorous, the tradition has been around ever since.

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Body paint with or without slogans abound.

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

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And a bottleneck it certainly is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacmel

Walking tour of Jacmel Town

sunny 31 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day four of our tour of Haiti courtesy of Undiscovered Destination

I am up early and make my way down to the terrace overlooking the ocean. It is a lovely, peaceful morning: the waves crash in over the rugged rocks; birds flit about in the sunshine (including a hummingbird which I unfortunately am not quick enough to capture on camera); trees are laden heavily with mangoes; bougainvillea and hibiscus vie for attention with other brightly coloured blooms; lizards scamper up tree trunks on their tiny legs, pausing to check for danger; fishermen look for their first catch of the day. Pure unadulterated bliss.

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

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Hotel Florita

We meet Michel, our guide for the walking tour of Jacmel, at the famed Hotel Florita, probably the most well known of the 'gingerbread' houses in Jacmal (and one of the best known hotels in Haiti).

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As well as Xiomara, Dawn, Ines, Paula and Daniel (and their body guard Jean Marc) – and of course Jacqui – from last night, we are joined by Jenis and Andrew: more 'real tourists' from London. They are all lovely people, and we thoroughly enjoy their company, but sightseeing in a group reminds me why we book private tours these days: some people chat, everyone wants to take photos of the same thing, It is often difficult to hear what the guide says, and I always get left behind as I want to listen to the explanations and make notes, then take photos. By then the guide has usually moved on to the next stop and started to point out other things of interest. I find group walks to be too rushed for that reason.

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Anyway, back to the Hotel Florita, which was built in 1888 for one of the rich coffee traders (at that time Jacmel was the richest town in Haiti) with the ground floor acting as their office and the two stories above being the accommodation for the family.

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Today, of course, they offer a place for weary tourists to put their heads down. One of the many benefits of having a local guide, is being able to walk around hotels like this, seeing the bedrooms, balconies and other parts that a casual visitor would rarely get to observe.

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

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In the courtyard was the kitchen and servants quarters.

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Seeing the scales on one of the balconies puzzles me at first (they weigh their guests?), until I put two and two together and remembered this was a coffee warehouse...

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In the 1950s Hotel Florita was abandoned after a downturn in the market and the owners moved to Port au Prince. A decade later, the building was bought by an American art dealer, Selden Rodman, who kept it for 20 years, running his art gallery from there. There is still a very nice craft shop here.

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It was converted in to a hotel after Jo Cross bought the house in 1989 and thought it would make a good insight into life as a rich coffee merchant in Victorian Haiti.

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Hotel Florita is a lovely old lady, craggy and showing signs of her advanced years, but has retained a lot of her beautiful character and delightful details.

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

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I particularly love the staircases.

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Les Créations Moro

Across the road from the Hotel Florita, is an art gallery run by the larger than life and excessively flamboyant Moro. By now I am feeling hot, bothered, harassed and a little agitated by the crowds inside the tiny shop . There might only be 12 of us, but we more than fill the showroom. Not being a lover of shopping at the best of times, I escape to a bench in the shade outside, leaving David to choose a couple of masks for us to wear for the carnival tomorrow.

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Jacmel is the undisputed handicraft capital of Haiti, famous for its papier-mâché carnival masks. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while, or have visited our house, will know that our living room walls are now almost covered with masks from all corners of the world. Just about to be joined by another one... or two...

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David chooses well.

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Alliance Française

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

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

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

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Art Creation Foundation for Children

After the 2010 earthquake, Louisiana-based mosaic artist Laurel True joined forces with the Art Creation Foundation for Children (ACFFC) teaching 'street kids' between the ages of 12 and 22 how to create mosaics. The children, most of whom were orphans, were provided with food, water, education and health care by the charity, while helping to brighten up the city with their art.

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Not only did the project provide the children with their basic needs and gave them a purpose with their lives; it also furnished them with practical life skills such as budgeting, design, and team management.

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

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UNESCO

The city of Jacmel, including the coffee mansions and the vibrant art scene, has tentatively been accepted as a World Heritage Site candidate, and I hope they make it. The crumbling historical centre has a certain ramshackle sort of charm, like a frail old soldier, full of faded glory - shabby but loved, and not ready to give up the ghost yet. The rickety buildings stand as a reminder, not just of the ravages of nature, but also as a testament to the fortitude of the Haitian people in times of adversity.

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After a devastating fire at the end of the 19th century, the town was rebuilt using many pre-fabricated parts - such as cast-iron balconies, pillars, tiles etc – which were shipped over from France. Apparently these mansions were later the influence behind the architecture of New Orleans!

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I love the way these mansion look like they are taken straight out of a history book! Many of them are in need of a lick of paint, but to me that adds to the charm.

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In recent years, efforts have been made to revitalise the once flourishing cigar and coffee industries, although we see no sign of that on this visit.

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Cathédrale de St Phillippe et St Jacques

Built in 1859, the cathedral was heavily damaged by a fire in 1896 and again by the 2010 earthquake, the latter which left the building in a dangerous state. It is no longer in use, although I am told rebuilding work is under way, at the cost of $4 million, using modern technology and engineering which will allow the church to be (almost) earthquake-proof and protect this historically significant cathedral for many years to come.

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

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Marché de Fer

The building which housed the famous Iron Market was imported from Belgium in 1895, during Jacmel's heyday. This was the commercial hub of Jacmel with throngs of vendors and customers spilling out on to the surrounding streets.

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These days it is a sad ramshackle collection of crumbling metal and wood – damaged beyond a quick repair by the earthquake, and like so many structures in this country: it is awaiting rebuilding.

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Place Louverture

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

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This is where you can find Manoir Alexandre, the home of the fictional Hadriana from the novel 'Hadriana in my dreams'. She was the most beautiful girl in all of Jacmel, and on her wedding day she turned on the steps to wave at all her followers and fell to her death. The story goes on to tell how she wasn't really dead, she'd been turned into a zombie by a witch doctor and escaped to live happily ever after.

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The Town Hall is also located on the square.

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Street Art

I know there are two sides to every coin and that not everyone appreciates street art. I personally think – provided it has been done well, like here, and is not just tags/graffiti – that it adds colour and cheeriness to an otherwise grey and dull town scene.

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

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Plan Haiti

Paula is particularly interested to see the closed and dilapidated Plan Haiti offices, as she is heavily involved in this project as part of her role as Canadian ambassador.

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Pétion and Bolívar Square

I don't know if it is because of tomorrow's carnival, the fact that it is a Saturday lunchtime, or whether it is always like this, but we find hardly any people about on the streets of Jacmel. Even the Tourist Office is closed.

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The square is named after Alexandre Pétion, the first president of the Republic of Haiti, and Simón Bolívar, the revolutionary who was instrumental in liberating South America. Bolívar and Pétion were good mates, and the latter provided Bolívar with 12,000 men for his battle.

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This is where Bolivar helped create the Venezuelan flag. A symbolic but tatty flag still hangs here and Haiti continues to celebrate the Venezuelan independence day.

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

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Carnival Anticipation

It is certainly obvious that preparations for the carnival are well under way, with decorated street furniture, posters, masks and figures leading us to the start point for tomorrow's carnival procession.

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Carnival Mask Exhibition

Here we find an exhibition showcasing some of the more popular masks and outfits from the massive selection we will see; complete with brief explanations of what the costumes represent and the story behind them.

Ati Brino
Created in 1975 by Sergio Anceon who disguised a donkey with human costumes. Because the people seemed to find this humorous, the tradition has been around ever since.

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Zombi
This disguise represents the physical and psychological status between life and death. It is a mystic belief that is very strong in the Haitian imagination.

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

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Bann Dyab
A band which started to perform in the 1950s in the Jacmel carnival. It was created by Emilien Toussaint, whose son, Charles, directed the group until his death in the 1990s. His disciples still continue the tradition.

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

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Lanceurs de Cordes
Created at the request of the parents of Jacmel who wanted to teach their children to stop bed wetting in the 1940s. Later, in the 1970s, Dieujuste and Masseant were the most important performers for this disguise.

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

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

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Charles Oscar
This outfit represents the cruelty of General Charles Oscar who massacred all the political prisoners in the Grande Prison of Port au Prince during the American occupation in 1915.

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What amazes me, is the detail in these papier mâché masks. I guess in a poor country such as Haiti, it makes perfect sense to create your carnival outfits out of materials that are cheap and readily available.

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Lakou New York

Jacmel's beautiful mosaic promenade, known as Lakou New York, runs along the sea front; snaking its way past bars, shops and restaurants on one side, and the blue ocean with bobbing boats and swaying palm trees on the other.

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

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I start to follow the others in to the store, but find it is so tiny I start to panic just looking at it, so I stay outside in the shade, photographing some of the local children instead.

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Lunch

Walking around Jacmel was hot and thirsty work this morning, and David rushes to the bar to make sure a cold Prestige is brought to our table.

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Ever since we met Jacqui, she has raved about the sautéed lobster here at Cyvadier Plage Hotel. Now, being rather partial to lobster myself, and thoroughly enjoying last night's offering, I don't hesitate to take her recommendation. And yes, Jacqui is right – the lobster is to die for: it is tasty, it melts in your mouth, it has been evicted from its shell and there is plenty of it! Good one Jax!

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

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

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Siesta

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

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Dinner

Tonight we have a special buffet, and Jacqui's group are the honoured guests this evening.

The meal starts off with lobster sliders. Mmm, more lobster!

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As well as the salad bar, there is conch curry, mais djon djon (rice cooked in mushroom liquid, with corn), national rice (rice with a bean sauce poured over it), fried plantains, shrimps and dolphin dolmas (dolphin cooked in a banana leaf with orange).

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Christophe (the hotel owner) explains the food to us

Before anybody starts getting their knickers in a twist, dolphin in these parts is what we call mahi mahi back home - a fish, not the playful porpoises!

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Folklore Show

After dinner, Jacqui has arranged for a local folklore group to entertain us. They are a slick troupe who perform two acts, both based on Tcha Tcha vodou ceremonies.

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The first act involves appeasing the loa (spirit) with offerings including rhum (which is also consumed I notice) and the creation of a veve, a pattern of cornmeal on the floor.

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The drum beats are hypnotic and some the participants shake a rattle as the dancing intensifies until one person becomes obsessed by the loa and falls on the floor. This signifies that his ti bon ange (soul) has left the body and the spirit has taken control.

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

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This dance has much in common with the vodun ceremony we were lucky enough to witness in Benin a few years ago, except that was a real trance, this is a performance put on for us.

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

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

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After the dancing, which I have to say, was pretty spectacular and quite intense (despite the fact that it was only a 'performance', not the real thing), we enjoy some cake.

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Paula and Xiomara, as part of their duties as Canadian and Panamanian ambassadors, attended a meeting arranged by the Jacmel Tourist Office earlier this evening. They brought back some asson, calabash rattles filled with rattlesnake bones used in vodou ceremonies, and give us a little demonstration.

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

Port au Prince - Jacmel

Heading down South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bananas

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

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

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Public Transport

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

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Cyvadier Plage Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ambassadors can be fun too...

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

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

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It is certainly an evening to remember!

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

Port au Prince

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

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

Day 1 of our Haiti trip with Undiscovered Destinations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Port au Prince

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

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Gingerbread Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The National Palace after the earthquake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As this article in the Guardian points out:

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

The images on the news were heartbreaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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