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Mary City Sightseeing

A leisurely day


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Despite being up three times in the night, I managed to get nine hours sleep last night. I still feel tired though.

After a breakfast of egg, salami and bread, we head out to explore the town of Mary.

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As in Ashgabat, everything seems to be white and gold here too.

Mary Museum

The map shows the different areas of Turkmenistan, and Meylis points out the route we took across the desert. All the images from the museum are taken without flash, and from behind glass, so are mostly of very poor quality.

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The first part of the museum is dedicated to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the current leader of Turkmenistan, featuring photographic evidence about his super-powers, with such amazing qualities and abilities, such as football, tennis cycling, horse riding, rally driving, target shooting, martial arts, running, cooking, cotton picker, factory worker, even a qualified surgeon!

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The next section is a display of the animals found in this region.

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7th century lamps found at Merv archaeological site

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14th century jewellery featuring serdolik stones

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Sugar and tea - essential trade items along the famed Silk Road

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Gold medal from 5th Asian Games

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Weighlifting medals

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Viktor Sariyanidi, the man who discovered Gonur Depe archaeological site

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Painting using just red and white colours by A Akyyev called Guljemal Khan

A number of dioramas show traditional life in Turkmenistan.

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Showing the traditional bread oven

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Needles for making holes in the bread

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Traditional Central Asian felt making

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A traditional Turkmen wedding

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Desert hunting dogs - still used today. No weapons are allowed while hunting, only dogs

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Traditional yurt

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Inside the yurt

The most interesting section of the museum, to me, is the part dedicated to the items found during excavations of Gonur Depe, the archaeological site we visited yesterday. These exhibits completely blow my mind – it is almost incomprehensible to take in the fact that they are FOUR THOUSAND years old!

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It is believed that life ended in Gonur Depe as the river changed course and deprived the inhabitants of a water source. As they left, they practised the scorched earth policy, setting fire to the town before departure.

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How historians believe the people of Gonur Depe looked like.

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Model of Gonur Depe in its heyday

While the items unearthed at Merw – which we will be visiting tomorrow – are nowhere near as old as they ones from Gonur Depe, they depict a rich mix of cultures as Merw was known as the heart of the Silk Road.

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The intriguing mythical bull figure

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Artistic interpretation of Merw

Mary Library

We leave the museum to explore more of the town of Mary. The roof of the library opens up to reveal tulip-type petals, hiding a powerful telescope. This is a nod to the famous Observatory in ancient Merw, where dozens of scientists, including Omar Khayyam studied the universe.

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The library holds three million books and can accommodate 600 readers at any one time. It was opened in 2011 and cost $36 million to build. The library is a reminder that Merw was famous for the world's largest library that was once the centre of science, education and culture.

Gurbanguly Hajji Mosque

The mosque was renovated during Ramadan last year, replacing the previous orange dome with the current gilded version.

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The prayer hall can hold 3,000 male worshippers, with a further 2,000 women on the second floor. Unlike the previous mosques we have visited, where the writing has been in the local Turkmen language, here the scripts are all in traditional Islamic calligraphy.

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The beautiful dome

Pokrovskaya Russian Orthodox Church

The church was built around 1900 by Russian forces after they seized the city in 1884 and guarded it against frequent attacks by British forces and Afghan armies.

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Following the Russian Revolution and the Establishment of the Soviet Union, religious freedoms were curtailed and by the 1930s, the church was closed, the priest executed, the cross torn down, and the building repurposed as a club and later a military warehouse. The church returned to its original function in 1947, following the end of World War II, though religious activities remained tightly controlled under Stalin's officially atheist regime.

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Only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was atheism no longer encouraged by the state. Following the breakup of the USSR, the various Republics were free to form their own religious policies. In Turkmenistan, the Russian Orthodox church is officially recognized as about 3% of the population are Orthodox believers.

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Just like Doubting Thomas, devotees touch the crucified feet of Jesus, as can be seen by the flaking worn-out paint.

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Outside the church we encounter a group of beggars, the first we've seen on this trip. I ask Meylis if I can give them something, and how much. He suggests 10 manat (less than £3), and that I tell them to “deletes”, which means share. They appear very grateful. (bad photo from inside the car as we drive off)

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Aladdin Café
Today's lunch restaurant, located near our hotel, is a funky retro-style café (Turkmenistan's answer to the Hard Rock Café chain) with quirky charm and good, mostly Turkish, food.

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Tavuk Döş – a tasty and tender chicken dish, here shown with Dymok, a smoked vegetable salsa

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Karişik Pide – Turkish pizza with minced lamb

Shopping

After lunch Meylis takes us to the supermarket for 'essential supplies' for a room picnic this evening. We buy some local wine (against Meylis' advice – he says it is “no good”. I always like to try local food and drink, so at just $2, I take a chance), cheese and various snacks. I am out or rum, so we look at the Bacardi in the wine store, but when we compare the price of the imported rum (460 manat, a very steep £100) against that of the local vodka at 26 manat (just over £5), it's a bit of a no-brainer. The supermarket, like many other shops in this part of the world, has no small coins, so gives us back sweets and chewies in lieu of change.

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We continue to the pharmacy for a cold spray for David's leg. The only thing they can offer is a cream, and he gets headache tablets as change.

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Free afternoon

Back in the room we find that there has been no maid service while we have been out, which means there is no toilet paper. We anticipated a shortage, as this seems to have been the norm so far on this trip, so we bought some earlier in the grocery store.

Having ended up with a bit more time here in Mary than anticipated due to the change of itinerary after David hurt his leg, there is nothing planned for us for the rest of this afternoon. There are no book stores nearby, nor a hotel shop, and I didn't bring my kindle, any books or magazines, as I didn't expect to have any time to read them. Most western websites are banned – YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, BBC and other news outlets, even my chiropractor's site is unavailable. I can get gmail, that's my only way of keeping in touch with the outside world, and the VPN I purchased before leaving home, is not working either. There is a pool, but neither of us brought swim wear. Not only can David barely walk, it is also over 40 °C outside , so exploring the surrounding area on foot is out of the question. A snooze it is then.

Room Picnic

Our room here in Mary is spacious and well furnished, perfect for a room picnic. Using my sarong as a tablecloth and the lids of our Tupperware containers as plates, plus we always bring plastic tumblers and sporks (combined spoon+knife+fork) – we are well equipped.

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As always, we have bought way too much food, and also some surprising stuff – what we thought was a savoury snack, turns out to be sugar puff cereal! Oh well.

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David's doorstep cheese sandwich!

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The wine. What can I say about the wine? It smells, looks and tastes like medicine, or a really bad Muscat wine. Maylis was right, it is D.I.S.G.U.S.T.I.N.G.! One mouthful and the rest goes down the loo!

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The vodka makes up for it though, this was a brand recommended by Artem. When the locals drink vodka and Coke, they have it in two separate glasses, and will take one mouthful of neat vodka followed by one mouthful of Coke. We mix it together in the same glass, however.

That bring us to the end of another day in Turkmenistan, on a fascinating trip arranged by Undiscovered Destinations. If you are into unusual travel destinations, check them out, they have a number of great itineraries, as groups or private tours.

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Posted by Grete Howard 23:32 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque church shopping museum wine picnic pizza mary library vodka hard_rock_cafe rum supermarket pharmacy cheese yurt turkish_food merv vpn russian_orthodox_church pide orthodox_church undiscovered_destinations room_picnic gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow leg_injury gmail golden_dome mary_library merw mary_museum gonur_depe felt_making serdolik archaeological_finds gurbanguly_hajji_mosque spork sore-leg aladdin_café pokrovskaya Comments (2)

Wahiba Sands

Lunch in a Bedouin camp, sunset over the dunes and the stars at night


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As soon as the sun rises at 06:15 this morning, the peace is broken . It is a case of “Gentlemen, start your engines”. Except these are no gentlemen: the sound we can hear is cars revving up to trash the dunes by young lads who have come out from town for the weekend. They make as much noise as possible, take unnecessary risks on the steep slopes and leave a lot of rubbish behind in the desert. They are about as popular as stag parties in the UK.

I try to get down a little something at breakfast, but as I still have the runs, I also want to be careful with what I eat.

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As I wander around the restaurant area taking photographs after breakfast, I somehow manage to miss a step and splat flat on my face. Thankfully I am able to avoid my camera hitting the hard concrete floor. Phew. My knee doesn't fare as well, unfortunately. Before I have even had time to realise what has happened, four strong men are there to help me up. Thankfully there are no serious injuries, so I am able to continue with my day.

Bedouin Camp

Today we are seeking out a Bedouin settlement to learn about their way of life and have lunch with the family.

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We are visiting Salma and her extended family, with her two sons and a daughter living in the camp. The daughter and one of the sons are married, while the other son remains a bachelor as the family cannot afford the dowry (the going rate being around £14,000).

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Salma's daughter-in-law and her children

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Salma's daughter is expecting her ninth child; she already has two sets of twins.

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We have lunch in their dining tent: chicken, biriyani, 'desert fish', vegetables, rice and Omani bread.

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It is all very tasty, but I am still very conscious of my delicate tummy, so I just nibble a little of each dish. I hate for Salma to think I am being rude or fickle, so I ask Said to explain to her why I am not eating much.

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After lunch, the Bedouin women dress me up in their traditional face mask and I ask Salma's daughter-in-law to paint my hands with intricate and beautiful henna designs.

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We return to our camp in time for a pre-dinner drink in the 'Boat Bar'.

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When I say “drink”, I am not talking about an alcoholic beverage unfortunately, as this, like so many in Oman, is a dry hotel. Chocolate milkshake it is.

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We don't linger too long, as the place is swarming with pesky little flies.

Sunset

After a short snooze, we leave the camp once again in search of some suitable sand dunes for creating beautiful vistas as the sun goes down and the shadows become longer and darker. My favourite time of day.

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We are certainly not the only ones enjoying this evening's sunset.

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We leave before the actual sunset, as we saw the big red ball in the sky last night, and it is nowhere near as bright tonight. I am really only interested in photographing the shadow-sculpted dunes anyway.

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Entertainment

After dinner, a local Bedouin family entertain us with songs and dance.

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There is what appears to be a party of local lads and hearing all their cheering, clapping and whistling, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were watching a couple of strippers rather than this demure family-friendly display.

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The Stars at Night

When booking this trip, I paid special attention to the moon phase, to ensure we were going to be here in the Wahiba Desert where there is almost zero light pollution at the darkest time of the month.

So here we are. The stars this evening are fabulously bright and I try to take some photos with the tents in the foreground and then wander into the car park to get a different view of the camp.

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We get chatting to a couple of guys who had also been out taking pictures of the stars over the dunes, and when they complain that this is a dry hotel with no alcohol for sale, we invite them back to our room to share our rum and some great travel stories.
Sebastian and Kasper – if you are reading this – thanks for a fun evening!

Yet another fantastic day in Oman, thank you Undiscovered Destinations once again for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:24 Archived in Oman Tagged night desert sunset travel sand shadows dancing drums sand_dunes oman stars henna singing rum bedouin astro bedouin_camp burqa wahiba_sands night_shots night_photography astro_photography wahiba 1000_nights_camp henna_painting dowry face_mask burka long_shadows stars_at_night Comments (4)

Port au Prince: Fet Gede / Day of the Dead

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

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

Fet Gede

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Cimetiére

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

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

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

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Kwa Baron (Cross of Baron)

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

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

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

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Pimam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vodou in Haiti

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

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

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

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Vodou ceremony in Benin 2006

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

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Lwa

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

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

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

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

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

Baron Samedi

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

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

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

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

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Erzulie

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

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

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Peristyle - The Vodou Temple

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

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

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

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

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Music

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

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

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Maman Brigitte

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

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Dancing

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

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

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

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

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

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Chanting

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

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Pimam

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

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

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Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thank you Voyage Lumiere for making this happen.

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

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)

Jalousie, Bouteliers, Furcy and Pétionville

Head for the hills

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.

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I have to say the cleaning staff is certainly efficient here, Housekeeping knock on the door at 07:55 this morning, wanting to make the room up! Normally we are up and out by that time, but this holiday has some nice, leisurely starts. In fact, we have quite a lot of free time on this trip – is this a sign that we are getting old?

Not only are they efficient here at Le Plaza, they are extremely friendly too. The girl who 'checks us in' at breakfast fusses over my hair; and Jerry, the waiter, won't let us carry and thing - not even the plate or glass - from the buffet.

I try a vegetable tortilla and some sautéed ham for breakfast this morning, rather than the usual omelette. It makes a nice change.

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Jalousie – Beauty v/ Poverty

Today we head for the hills, with the first stop being a look-out point over Jalousie, one of Haiti's slum areas built into the side of Morne L’Hôpital.

Inspired by famous Haitian painter Prefete Duffaut, who died in 2012, the houses have been painted in rainbow colours as part of a government scheme called “Jalousie en couleurs” (Jalousie in Colours).
The scheme involved rebuilding earthquake-damaged houses, installing running water, and introducing rent-free accommodation (initially at least), in order to attract people to move here from displacement camps downtown. Being on such a steep slope has its disadvantages though, with many of the homes built on the ravines that serve as canals for rainwater. Due to the lack of vegetation to hold it back, during the rainy season water and mud have been known to carry away people, animals and even entire houses.

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Poverty

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and the third poorest country in the world outside Africa (the top spots go to Afghanistan and Nepal). Decades of neglect and a lack of investment in water and sanitation are still manifested in the country’s malnutrition and child mortality rates, which are the highest in the region. Some 80% of the population live below the poverty line while the country is in an advanced state of industrial collapse, with a GDP per capita of just $2 a day.

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Pride

What has struck us here in Haiti, however, is the pride of the people. No-one looks poor. Everyone takes great care of their appearance, their clothes are always clean, the children are immaculate in their school uniforms. If I take one single word away with me from our time here is Haiti, it has to be PRIDE.

A new building springing up this side of the ravine - I guess the view we have today will soon be obscured by a multi-storey apartment block.

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Love the writing on the side of his helmet: Le Boss!

The road is narrow and winding, with lots of traffic. We get stuck behind a large truck which spews out putrid, black smoke as we travel up and up and up.

Bouteliers

We leave the smoking truck behind and turn off the main road to take a detour to Bouteliers, where the aptly named restaurant Observatoire offers amazing views.

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Below us lies Port au Prince and its suburbs spread out.

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On closer inspection, we can see the different aspects of Haiti's capital city, from its leafy suburbs...

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… to its tightly packed poorer quarters...

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… the town's enormous cemetery...

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… and the main town centre.

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It's not until I see it all laid out below me like this that I realise just how central our hotel is. There it is, right in the middle of all the main sights of downtown Port au Prince.

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Chaîne de la Selle

As we climb higher into the mountainous interior of Haiti, low clouds obscure the top of the mountain ranges.

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Ayiti (the original name of Haiti) means mountainous land in Taino language, the ethnic group who lived in Haiti for 700 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. In fact, Haiti is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean with its peaks plunging steeply down to the thin strips of coastal plain.

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We stop a couple of places to admire the scenery, looking out over the valleys, terraced fields and clusters of buildings that dot the countryside. Here they grow vegetables which are sold in the street markets and at the big supermarkets in town. It is nice to know that the small squares we see are owned by the farmers, not by some rich landowner leasing it to workers at an astronomical price.

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At Fermanthe, we stop to buy some post cards, a fridge magnet and use the facilities. The choice of post cards – the first ones we've seen in Haiti – is very limited indeed. Serge – who is also a keen photographer – is thinking about making his own. I hope he does, as I am sure he would be able to offer a much better selection than the ones available at the Mountain Maid Baptist Mission here.

Kenscoff

This is where a lot of the produce we saw growing on the hillsides ends up – the main market for the whole mountain region.

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Furcy

At 6,236 feet (Serge has an altimeter on his smart watch!), the air here is cool and clean – quite the contrast to Port au Prince at sea level.

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The site is absolutely spectacular, sitting on a ridge overlooking valleys and mountains, and there is an almost serene Alpine charm to the place.

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The spectacular track on the ridge of the mountain range takes you across to Jacmel – it is accessible by 4WD only though. Shame. It looks like a fun drive.

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This, surely, is where the Haitan proverb Dèyè mon gen mon ('Beyond the mountain there are mountains again') was coined.

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Pétionville

Making our way back down to Port au Prince, we make a stop in Pétionville.
Named after the first president of the Republique of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, this is the upmarket tourist area of Port au Prince and is known for its palatial mansions and numerous art galleries. I found the description of Pétionville in Wikipedia patronising, condescending and highly insulting, suggesting that the suburb has “an appearance of western normality”. What the **** is that, and why would I travel to Haiti to experience it when I can instead immerse myself in the rich and eclectic culture that the years of mixed heritage has created ?

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Anyway, climbing back down from my soap box...

Pétionville has a country club and Haiti's only golf club. Wow! (insert sarcasm font here).

Lunch

We mentioned to Serge yesterday that we are keen to try some local food rather than international stuff and that we like spices; so he takes us to La Coquille Restaurant for lunch.

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With tightly packed tables inside and out, the buffet restaurant is popular with locals.

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One of the drinks Jacqui suggested we try, was soursop juice – a fruit native to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean. This is a new one to us, and it tastes a little like a creamy banana milkshake.

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Again it comes served au naturel, with extra sugar to add if desired.

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And judging by the look on David's face, I would say it is probably required.

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Round one of the buffet consists of:

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diri djon djon – a traditional Hatian Creole dish where rice is cooked with water in which dried black mushrooms have been soaked/cooked. The mushrooms themselves are not served with it, just the rice which is stained brownish-black by the mushroom water.

rice served with beans in a sauce poured over it

lalo legume – jute leaves cooked until slightly sticky

cabbage and carrots

For round two I pick up a few things that were not available on my first visit to the buffet – some very fatty but tasty fried beef, green beans, beetroot and pasta in a creamy sauce.

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Art Gallery

Pétionville is famous for its art galleries, and after lunch, we visit an upmarket showroom, complete with armed security guard outside, a beautifully presented but bored looking female assistant, and super-efficient air conditioning. To be fair, it has some pretty awesome art - we are not tempted, however. Serge asks us, half-heartedly, if we would like to visit another gallery...? I think he knew the answer even before he finished the sentence.

Caribbean Supermarket

Instead he takes us to the Caribbean Supermarket. Commenting to Jacqui yesterday that the one thing I would miss if I moved to a place such as Haiti, is the supermarkets back home; Jacqui looked at me aghast and exclaimed: “Are you kidding me?” Entering the clean, modern and extremely well stocked store, I see her point. Heck, they even have Strongbow cider!

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Barbancourt Rum

And no, we don't buy any cider. We do, however, get some local 8 year old rum. The Barbancourt Distillery is over one hundred and fifty years old, and the rum is referred to as the 'rum of connoisseurs'. We shall look forward to sampling this and seeing what it is like. Not that I am a connoisseur, but I do have some experience with rum...

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Taking no chances, we strap our booty well in to the seat of the van as we make our way back to Port au Prince.

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Post Office

Having bought post cards this morning, the logical next step is stamps. You'd think that would be an easy job. Not so in Haiti. The post office does not produce stamps above 20 gourdes. A card for America costs 200 gourdes and for England we require 15 stamps per card. Don't even think about sending post cards to Australia! $40 for stamps to go on ten cards may be horrendously steep, but to me it is worth it just for the unique experience of sticking the blighters on the cards! I just hope they actually get there after all this!

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Traffic

As we enter Port au Prince proper, we get stuck in traffic. Serge blames it on the school run – nothing new there then: just like back home! At least it gives me a chance to people-watch...

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Everybody needs some form of entertainment, and in a country like Haiti, where life is tough, jobs are scarce and poverty is rife, dominoes offer just that: a chance to relax, hang out with friends and even partake in a spot of gambling without necessarily having to put down any monetary stakes.

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It seems it is not just me who finds the city heat too much – I suppose if you work on a street-side vegetable stall, you have to use some ingenuity in order to find somewhere to take an uninterrupted afternoon siesta.

Road Block

Fed up with sitting in stationary traffic, Geffrard tries to take short cuts across other avenues, but he's not the only one attempting to get around the gridlock. Eventually we discover the reason for this heavier-than-usual amount of traffic – a road block. Riot police with shields and semi-automatic guns at the ready tell me “no photos”. I oblige – after a quick covert snap from inside the car.

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We are ordered out of the car, as no vehicles are allowed anywhere past this point. Geffrard and Serge argue that they want to transport these tourists to their hotel; but the gendarme is not impressed. Don't they know who we are? Apparently not; and we make our way through the throngs of milling people on foot to get to Le Plaza, where the metal gate is locked, bolted and guarded by two burly men armed with assault rifles. “Let us in!”

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Safe Haven?

As always, Le Plaza is a haven of tranquillity and respite from the disturbing turmoil on the streets outside. But did I come here for a sedate and calm holiday? Did I heck! Finding a suitable (safe?) viewpoint, I start photographing the political rally that snakes its way through the city.

Political Rally

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Unlike some of the recent inflamed and destructive demonstrations by the opposition parties (there are over 100 political parties, with 56 presidential candidates for the upcoming elections); this procession is organised by the ruling party with a strong anti-violence message in an attempt to show the world (or at least the Haitian voters) their own peaceful approach.

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Pink? Really? Who on earth was in charge of the colour scheme for the campaign?

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Having already twice been told “No Photos” by uniformed, armed police, I am initially a little apprehensive about openly photographing the rally, even from my safe view point; but the protesters themselves seem very friendly and quite happy to have their picture taken, waving their hands and placards at me. Haitians don't seem to smile naturally like some other nations, but when they do, their whole face lights up.

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The only casualty we see, is this guy who gets knocked off his bike when a car collides with it. At those snail-pace speeds, no harm is done and he laughs as he is helped back up again.

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Despite being billed as a peaceful rally, the police are taking no chances, and are out in force: ready for combat with their riot gear and armoured vehicles. When we later hear several sirens from outside the hotel grounds, we do wonder if the rally remained peaceful.

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Pool time

The show is over, and it's time to chill in more ways than one.

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Post cards

OK, we now have to start licking – the amount of stamps required for each card necessitates that the stamps go on immediately after the name and address, before even thinking about what to write.

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It certainly doesn't leave much space for writing!

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In fact, it doesn't leave much of the other side either; only the two cards bound for the US retain an unscathed picture. Australian friends will have to guess what the card shows.

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Beer!

With our tongues coated in glue, a drink is much called for! Rarely has an ice cold beer looked so welcome!

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Dinner

As usual, I find the starters on the menu more interesting than the main courses, and order two entreés instead of one mains, while David settles for a meat lovers' pizza.

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The starters are huge!

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Kebbeh – Arabic fried minced meat dish served with Picliz (Haitian coleslaw), and this one has a real kick!

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Accras de malenga – taro root fritters. A little bit dry - would have been nice with a chilli sauce or something for dipping

I am just grateful that I had two starters, not a starter and a main course, as I certainly couldn't finish these two!

As we have a late start tomorrow morning, we enjoy the rest of the evening by the pool in the company of a rum punch or four.

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PS. As of March 13th - six weeks later - none of the post cards have arrived. Boo! All that effort (and money) for nothing. I have waited until now to publish this blog entry in the hope that they would, so not to spoil the surprise.

Posted by Grete Howard 14:43 Archived in Haiti Tagged mountains art beer hills views shopping scenery pool pizza swimming_pool rum stamps haiti art_galleries petionville la_plaza_hotel port_au_price furcy political_rally post_cardselections haiti_elections Comments (0)

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