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São Tomé city tour and Monte Café

An easy day


View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

I set the alarm for 06:30 this morning for some bird watching in and around the hotel grounds before breakfast. I am not disappointed.

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Yellow-billed kite

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Village Weaver

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São Tomé Prinia

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Yellow Fronted Canary

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Yellow Billed Kite

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Village Weaver

Four 'lifers' (new species to us) before breakfast on the first day! I also spot a couple of cute little lizards.

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Breakfast

Forte de São Sebastião

The old San Sebastian Fort has now been turned into a museum.

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The square outside is home to statues depicting the first settlers in São Tomé and Principe.

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São Tomé & Principe were both uninhabited prior to colonisation by the Portuguese in 1470 who came in search of land to grow sugar and as a base for trade with mainland Africa. São Tomé, being right on the equator and more than wet enough, fitted the bill perfectly. Slaves were brought over as forced labourers from Congo and Angola on the African coast to work the plantations. The first successful settlement was established in 1493 by Álvaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown and by the mid-16th century the islands were Africa's foremost exporter of sugar.

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Attracting settlers proved difficult, however, and most of the earliest inhabitants were 'undesirables' sent from Portugal, mostly Jews, a great number of whom soon died.

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By 1515, São Tomé and Príncipe had become slave depots for the coastal slave trade centred at Elmina in Ghana. The interesting little museum chronicles the history of the country, but unfortunately photography is not permitted inside most of the rooms in the fort, so you will just have to make do with some external shots from the courtyard.

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Sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years as a result of competition from the West Indies, and São Tomé was now primarily a transit point for ships engaged in the slave trade between the West and continental Africa.

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In the early 19th century, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced to São Tomé. Large plantations (known as roças), mostly owned by Portuguese companies, sprung up all over the islands. Soon São Tomé became the world's largest producer of cocoa, with 800 of these plantations, and although this is no longer the case (and so many of the roças lie in ruins), cocoa remains the country's most important crop.

The second room in the museum shows examples of the different types of cocoa beans (and there was I thinking a cocoa bean was a cocoa bean). The plant was originally brought from Portugal as an ornamental plant, and remained so until someone said: “You're wasting your money, this plant grows so well here you should start a plantation”. Experts were imported from other Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique and Angola, and the rest is history.

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Other rooms are devoted to Catholicism, the President, the Flag, dining room, culture room (including voodoo paraphernalia and mannequins in various traditional costumes) and a gallery of old pictures from the city.

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By far the most emotional and poignant of all the exhibitions, is the Massacre Room. I find most of the pictures too distressing to look at, yet again despairing at man's inhumanity to man.

By the time we get to the 'turtle room', my back is giving me a lot of pain. I had hoped the pain would be gone by this morning after a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed, but not so; it is getting worse and worse.

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São Tomé is home to five different species of turtles, and much education work is taking place to ensure their continuing conservation.

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I had no idea Leatherback Turtles could grow that big!

Climbing onto the roof is proving to be quite a task because of my painful back. It is worth it for the view though.

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The graves of some 'important people' of a bygone age.

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Catedral de São Tomé

The 16th century cathedral is the oldest on the island and is reputed to be the first Catholic church to be built in an African country.

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The original building was constructed from wood, but the church was rebuilt in a more durable material - concrete - in the 17th century.

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As a place of worship, it is popular, especially for Sunday mass, when the pews are full.

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Damaged by fire during a revolt in 1975, the church was repaired from donations.

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Beautiful relics from the Portuguese era.

Parliament Building

Photographing this building is not permitted, with armed guards posted outside. Despite my experience in 2011 when I was chased down the road by one such guard after taking a picture of a bank in Algiers, I risk a covert shot from a distance.

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Driving by the market and later past the popularly named 'Think Square' where Sãotoméans gather to work out a survival strategy when they have no money (unemployment sits at 70%), we head out of town and up into the hills. I am pleasantly surprised at the condition of the road: there is some sizeable areas of tarmac between the potholes. The first settlement of any size we reach is Trindade, the second biggest city in São Tomé, with 45,000 inhabitants. It was here that a rebellion took place in 1953, where hundreds of native Creoles were killed or captured and tortured to death (known as the Batepá massacre). Later their bodies were thrown in the sea, like animals. "Throw this shit into the sea to avoid troubles," the Portuguese governor was quoted as saying. A memorial has been built to mark the spot and its anniversary is officially observed by the government.

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Roça Monte Café

One of the largest coffee plantation on the island, Monte Café has now been turned into a museum offering a tour of the coffee production process.

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At 600m above sea level, the air is considerably cooler here than in town, and the climate is ideal for growing Arabica coffee.

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We are invited up the stairs of one of the old warehouses, to walk through the exhibitions with a Portuguese-speaking guide, and Agostinho as a translator. Here the men toiled the plantations while the women worked in the factory.

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I am in agony with my back now, and seek out a chair on the balcony after the first couple of rooms, especially as photography is not permitted inside the museum.

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Alei Coffe Shop

Despite taking a double dose of painkillers, my back is still going into spasms, unfortunately marring my enjoyment of the excellent lunch.

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Ceviche with marlin, passionfruit, onion and cucumber

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Red snapper with plantain, breadfruit and rice. The green stuff is described as a 'lusoa sauce' and is really quite nice. I have been unable to ascertain what it is in English - maybe the green tops of sweet potato.

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David tries the locally brewed beer, Rosema, which comes in unmarked bottles without a label.

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Passionfruit cheesecake

Passionfruit is grown in abundance here on São Tomé, and I am intrigued by the size of them. I had no idea there was more than one type of passionfruit.

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Miramar Hotel

With my back being so painful, we return to the hotel a little earlier than planned, where I have a short siesta and feel some better afterwards.

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Like last night, we wander onto the terrace for a drink outside before dinner. Tonight we choose some Portuguese Vinho Verde, which goes down very nicely.

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Dinner

I am assuming the hotel is not full this evening, as we are the only diners at 19:30. Tonight's special is chicken stroganoff, and we both choose that. It is very good.

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Coconut jelly on a biscuit base

The end of another interesting day in São Tomé, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:45 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged turtles fish fort museum cathedral africa birding parliament coffee trindade pain slavery ceviche defence canary plantations weaver massacre demonstrations cocoa bird_watching roca red_snapper undiscovered_destinations sao_tome batepa_massacre miramar_hotel prinia endemic_birds forte_de_são_sebastião sugar_plantations roca_monte_café vinho_verde passionfruit back_pain Comments (4)

Grand Comore Island Tour

A brief glimpse of life on this island


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep, I feel ready to take on Comoros: today we have a tour around the main island, Grand Comore.

Breakfast

But first, time to fill our bellies.

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While I hate being presented with a buffet for dinner, I am rather partial to a breakfast buffet.

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David’s breakfast of fried egg, potatoes and beans.

The restaurant is full of sparrows nesting in the rafters and hanging around waiting for the opportunity to grab a few crumbs.

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They are really quite cheeky, swooping in on abandoned plates as diners leave the tables to refill their coffees or whatever.

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Island Tour

We make an anticlockwise tour of the northern part of the island; but first we travel a short distance south along the west coast.

Iconi Cliffs

It was here, in the 16th century, that a number of local women threw themselves off the cliffs rather than allow themselves to be captured by Malagasy pirates to be sold into slavery.

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Kavhiridjewo Palace

Strategically positioned on a rocky promontory, the 15th century Kavhiridjewo Palace was built entirely from lava blocks and still retains some of the walls and defence towers from the time of the last Sultan.

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The Sultan was captured by the French and taken to Madagascar, whereas the Prince is buried here (the larger, more elaborate tomb) alongside his mum (the smaller, simpler grave at the front).

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There are no rivers or other waterways on the whole island, and although there is one spring that feeds the capital, most people have to rely on digging wells such as this one in the Sultan's palace for their drinking water.

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Spider

There is a legend attached to the Guardian of the Palace, the ‘humble’ spider: when the enemy wanted to attack the Sultan, the spider created a web strong enough to protect him. From that day on the Sultan vowed not to kill spiders.

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My on-line searches suggest that this is a female Red Legged Golden Orb Spider, a rather large spider (it is a bit bigger than the palm of my hand) who weaves extremely strong webs.

Witchcraft Lake

In the old days, the people of Comoros strongly believed in witchcraft (many still do); and when the Sultan wanted to win the war, it was only natural that he consulted the local witch. The Sultan was told to kill his slaves and throw them in the lake for the spirits to drink their blood and the fish to eat their flesh, which he duly did (and he went on to win the war).

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It is said that for many years, screams could still be heard until the whole village got together to pray for the lost souls.

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Car Breakdown

As we go to drive away from the lake, the car won’t start. Again.

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The driver fiddles under the bonnet of the car, but still nothing. It fires, then dies. I use the time to wander over to the lake again to take some photos of the egrets in the trees on the far side.

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Still no joy with the car. The driver phones for a mechanic to come and have a look at it. We hang around, photographing more birds.

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Pied Crow

When, after half an hour there is still no mechanic, there is only one thing to do: we have to make a sacrifice!

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An hour passes. There is not much around here, and Yahaya suggests we have to call for another car and driver rather than wait for the mechanic. Of course, soon after the call has been made, the mechanic turns up! By this stage neither the driver nor the guide is anywhere to be seen.

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The mechanic spends less than a minute ‘tinkering’ with the engine and once the other two realise the car has been fixed, we make a move!

Parliament

Politics of the Union of the Comoros takes place in a framework of a federal presidential republic, whereby the President of the Comoros is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. There are 42 members of parliament, none of whom are women. There seems to be widespread corruption, with the president giving himself a huge pay-rise as soon as he came to power, and all the important jobs going to his mates.

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Friday Mosque

Today is Friday and we can hear the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

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Badjanani Mosque

Built in a unique Comorian architectural style, Badjanani Msoque (AKA Ancienne Mosquée du Vendredi – Old Friday Mosque) is a symbol of the rich cultural and historical heritage of the country. Originally constructed in 1427, it is the oldest mosque in the Medina in Moroni, although the minaret was added much later, in 1921.

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Plateau Diboini

We drive across the island from the west coast to the east, over the picturesque Diboini Plateau with its seven cones of extinct volcanoes.

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Mount Karthala

On a clear day (not today), you can see Mount Karthala from this point on the east coast. The highest point of the Comoros and at 2,361m, it is the largest active volcano in the world, as well as one of the most active. Over the years it has had a devastating impact on many parts of the country.

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Mount Karthala hiding behind the cloud

Like so many of these type of disasters, the eruption of Mount Karthala has a bit of a legend attached to it: a tired and thirsty holy man wandered from home to home in the village looking for water, but everyone turned him away, apart from one old lady who was generous enough to offer him a drink. Complaining about the bad people of the village, the holy man insisted on taking the kind woman and her family with him when he left. Cursing, he turned to the volcano and with that the lava erupted, flattening the village they had just left.

Heroumbili

During one of the many eruptions (there have been more than twenty since the 19th century, the last one in 2007), the lava from the volcano reached the sea here and created an extension of the coastline land in the village of Heroumbili.

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Reclaimed land on the coast

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The village kids come out in force to interact with us.

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We continue along the north-east coastal road.

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Turtle Island

This small island has been given a 'protected status' to stop locals rowing across and 'harvesting' the turtles who nest here, or their eggs.

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Kissing Rocks

In Comoros, strictly-followed tradition means that the first-born girl must be kept pure until her parents find a suitable husband for her. She is not allowed to have a boyfriend, unlike any subsequent daughters.

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Legend tells of one such first-born girl, who had gone against tradition and her family’s wishes by secretly dating a young man. Hearing of her father’s arranged marriage to a suitor she did not know, she feared what would happen in the morning after the wedding night when all the male members of both families traditionally meet to inspect the bed sheet for signs of blood. She was very much in love, and not wanting to cause shame and embarrassment to her father, she and her boyfriend chose to jump to their death from the cliff.

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As they kissed one final time, their bodies turned to stone. If you look carefully, you can still see them there now, kissing.

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From the top there is a great view of the coastline below to one side and the mountains on the other.

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The house where the daughter lived - now abandoned

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On the road again.

Lac Niamawi, AKA Lac Salé (Salt Lake)

In the 16th century, an eruption demolished the city of Niamawi. In its wake, it left a crater that has since filled with salt water.

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The lake changes colour throughout the day, from brown to blue to green and is said to have healing properties due to its high sulphur content. No one knows how deep the lake is. In 1977 a team of Belgian divers went down to investigate, but they were never seen again.

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Lunch

Near Mitsamiouli we stop at a small restaurant called Mi Amuse, where we have lunch.

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The food consists of barracuda served with sweet and ordinary potatoes, carrots, fried bananas and rice, with a side of pickled lemon and chilli sauce.

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The restaurant, which is also a hotel, has a bar serving alcohol and a nightclub with lively music and dancing of an evening.

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Baobab Prison

As baobab trees get older (this one is a few hundred years old for sure), they very often become hollow in the centre.

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Hollowed-out baobabs have been utilised for a number of different things all over Africa, including as here, a prison

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In the old days, wrongdoers were put inside this ‘organic’ prison for three days, with the added night time punishment of the only light being the moonlight shining down through the gap above.

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Galawa Hotel

“Once upon a time…” Isn’t that how all fairy tales start? Unfortunately this story does not have a happy ending.

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this part of Comoros was a really ‘happening’ place, with a luxury hotel that employed 750 people and saw 350 visitors arrive twice a week on charter flights from South Africa.

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Yahaya proudly tells us he worked here for ten years, and Omar was his boss then, as he is now.

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At least the frangipani still flowers

After going into decline following neglect by the Comorian government, the hotel was razed to the ground by the French some fifteen years ago. Promises of renewed interest and investment from Dubai have not materialised and all hopes were dashed by the financial crash of 2008.

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One of Galawa's three beaches, there was a popular beach bar here

Today locals enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean at this site

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They are even enjoying a little song and dance routine as they bathe.

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The only evidence of the former leisure hub is the tiled fountain and a redundant gate (the gate doesn't actually do anything, as we can drive around the side)

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Yahaya also points out the spot where the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in 1996.

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Mtswamwindza Mosque

It was here that Islam was first introduced to Comoros in the 7th century. Mtswamwindza, whose real name is Mhassi Fessima embarked on a journey to Medina where he converted to Islam and then returned to his city, Ntsaoueni, and converted the people to the new religion.

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It was only the second mosque to be built in Africa, and Mtswamwindza is buried here.

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Rain

On our way back down the west coast, the heavens open and throw bucket-loads of water on us. Thankfully we are dry inside the car, albeit a little warm once we close the windows. The roads are horribly potholed from the frequent torrential showers.

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Along the coast we see beautiful sandy beaches, mangroves and lava flows reaching the sea.

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Note the abandoned hull of a car - the whole island is littered with such wrecks, just left where they lost their will to live.

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Road side grocery store

Bad News

Later Omar meets us in the reception of the hotel to tell us the arrangements for our flight to Anjouan tomorrow. There has been a change of plan... Really? That seems to be the theme of this trip.

The domestic airline Int’Air Iles has two planes: one 28-year old Airbus and a small 9-seater Cessna. The government has taken the larger plane to Kenya. We believe (hope?) it is for servicing; as I understand both Réunion and Madagascar have recently banned the airline citing safety issues.

What this means for us, is that we will have to take a ferry (hopefully) to Anjouan Island tomorrow instead of flying; but we will not be able to visit Mohéli Island as planned because there are no ferries connecting the island. The former is not a big deal, but the latter is a great shame, as our stay on Mohéli was to be the main part of our trip and the highlight: that is where we were going to go whale and dolphin watching, see turtles lay their eggs on the beach at night and see the rare Livingstone bats as well a the maki lemurs.

Oh well, there is not much we can do about it, we will just have to make the most of our time on Anjouan. Omar has arranged for us to come back to Grand Comore one day earlier than planned, so that we can easily connect with the new departure date from Comoros, also one day earlier than planned. That means four nights on Anjouan instead of the planned two.

Dinner

The restaurant has run out of lobster (I was hoping to try the local speciality of lobster in vanilla sauce) as well as fries, so it is rice or vegetables tonight (we can't have both).

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Chicken with mushroom sauce and vegetables

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Beef in mushroom sauce and rice

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in adventure travel to unusual destinations (such as Comoros), for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:46 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain mosque travel volcano hotel lake kids island breakfast crow africa prison spider muslim lunch parliament buffet islam sultan slavery baobab egrets sparrows sacrifice legend breakfast_buffet comoros barracuda undiscovered_destinations moroni grand_comore sultan's_palace karthala_volcano karthala iconi inconi_cliffs malagasy_pirates kavhiridjewo_palace witchcraft car_mechanic car_breakdown pied_crow friday_mosque badjanani badjanani_mosque plateau_diboini mount_karthala heroumbili turtle_island kissing_rocks ivoini mitsamiouli mi_amuse baobab_prison galawa_hotel galawa mtswamwindza mtswamwindza_mosque int'air_iles Comments (2)

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)

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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