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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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