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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)

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