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Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

sunny 34 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

Darkness still hangs over the Caribbean as we go for breakfast this morning, later replaced by an aspiring sunrise which never really amounts to anything.

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In the distant twilight we spot the Anthem of the Seas – The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship - heading for Labadee so that its passengers can spend the day on the beach.

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In the time it takes the ship to make its way across our horizon, twilight has almost been pushed aside by daylight, showing the ship in all its glory. I reluctantly admit that it does look impressive, at least from this distance.

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The sun is still low as we are driven to the airport for our return journey to the capital.

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Arriving at the airport, my heart sinks when I see the long queue of people - complete with huge amounts of luggage - waiting to check in; and when I realise that even the passengers are being weighed ready for the flight, the aforementioned heart plunges further into my stomach. I am therefore immensely relieved when Serge walks past the queue to another check in desk - the poor people heading for the humiliation of having their weight recorded are travelling to one of the outlying islands, not Port au Prince. Phew!

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Pimp my Truck

In Port au Prince Geffrard awaits us, now like an old friend, navigating his way through the morning traffic; all of which is infinitely more colourful and enriched than our min-van.

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Literally meaning 'quick quick', these buses – known as tap-taps, follow fixed routes, but not a timetable – they leave whenever they are full. That is full according to Haitian standards, not European, with passengers often hanging on the back or even sitting on the roof! There are no fixed bus-stops, the passengers knock the roof when they want to alight.

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They are mostly pick-up trucks which have been lovingly home welded and garishly decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.

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Often painted with religious names or slogans, portraits of famous people, and intricate, hand-cut wooden window covers, the ubiquitous tap-taps are unique to Haiti.

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Musée Canne à Sucre

Although it is not far from Port au Prince airport, by the time we reach the museum I am feeling decidedly weary. The sun is shining relentlessly, and it's already very hot - I always suffers from the effects of dehydration quite quickly - and severely - and I suspect I have not taken in enough liquids this morning.

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All I want to do is sit down, in the shade somewhere, with a cool drink. Instead we are introduced to the guide who will show us around the museum.

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The first room displays a brief chronicle of Haiti's history, from the Taino Indians through to Victorian times.

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Taino artefacts

I feel listless and disinterested, which isn't at all like me. Normally I love museums, and soak up every word the guides say, but this morning I find myself wandering around the displays aimlessly, not really taking any notice of the explanations offered.

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The museum has the appearance of a haphazard collection of random items, situated in someone's living room.

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Slavery
The second room focuses on slavery, revolution and black history in Haiti. If there is such a human trait as having too much empathy, then I suffer from this condition. Looking at the impassioned illustrations displayed, my mind immediately wants to try and imagine how I would feel if I was in that situation. Damn emotions... STOP IT! If I was indifferent to the exhibits earlier, I now find myself getting quite distraught at the thought of man's inhumanity to man.

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Seeing Haiti today, it is hard to believe that it was once the wealthiest overseas colony in the French empire! However, economic success came at a cost - Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

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Map showing where the slaves came from

Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave once they arrived on Haiti was 7 years. Essentially, the owners worked their slaves to death and then just bought more slaves. Those who tried to run away were severely punished and by 1789, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti.

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Cut-away model of slave ship shows the conditions the slaves were transported across the Atlantic under. Goods at the bottom, people on the middle deck.

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Some of the gruesome ways the slave masters kept their 'workers' in check. It doesn't even bear thinking about how cruelly these people were treated. I find it impossible to imagine how someone would have the mentality it would take to dish out that sort of punishment to another human being, and the fact that it was not just isolated incidents, it was considered the norm.

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Once they arrived in Haiti, slaves were divided into different categories: domestic help, overseers, agricultural workers and those involved in the sugar cane industry.

Revolution
Inspired by the French Revolution, the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) is the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and makes Haiti the only country where slave freedom was taken by force. A bedraggled group of slaves organised themselves, held a vodou ceremony calling for their liberty and went out with a guerilla war to defeat Europe’s most powerful army.

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Plantations were taken by force, or by using more subtle methods, such as poisoning their masters.

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In 1804, Haiti went on to become the first independent nation in Latin America; it is the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere (after the US); and the oldest black republic in the world. The three main players in the fight for Haiti's liberty were Jean Jaques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.

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Set in the grounds of the ruined old sugar plantation Habitation Chauteaublond, the museum courtyard features a collection of antiquated material relating to the sugar cane industry.

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17th century water mill, brought over from England, was used to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

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The guide turns the water on for us to show the wheel in operation. As we are the only people in the museum, it makes sense not to have the mill running continuously.

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As well as hydro-power, animals were used to operate this traction wheel.

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Vats for boiling the sugar cane to make molasses for export to Europe where it would be fermented to make rum.

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Belonging to the Haitian American Sugar Company, S.A. (HASCO), this – the first train in Haiti – was used for transporting sugar cane from the fields to the processing plants.

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Relais de Chateaublond Restaurant
Although the gorgeous on-site restaurant is famous for its selection of flavoured rums (such as passion fruit, anise and various herbs), we stick to Diet Coke with our lunch.

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Croix des Bouquets

In the suburb of Noailles is the commune of Croix des Bouquets, famed for its metalwork artisans. The flamboyant movement of recycling metal into art was started some 60 years ago and today there are over 1,000 artisans working in Croix des Bouquetes, hammering away to create intricate masks and other wall hangings from discarded oil drums, car parts and even kitchen utensils.

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We visit the workshop of Jacques Eugene, a renowned artist who was born here in Croix des Bouquetes and now employs several other locals in his studio.

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Like most of the artists, Jacques takes his inspiration from vodou, creating extraordinary wall hangings which are as bizarre (to us) as they are curious.

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Jacques explains the process from the raw material to the finished product: the oil barrel is cut open, burnt and flattened, then a pattern is traced on the surface. The rest is done with a hammer and chisel, metal cutters and artistic skill.

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This handsome mask now hangs proudly in my living room along with the two masks we wore for Jacmel carnival and the one I bought at Milot (well, I had to have something to do while David and Kyle were visiting the Citadelle – that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

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In addition to the intriguing masks, one of the most popular designs for steel drum art is the Tree of Life, a symbolic image with a cultural significance to the people of Haiti. Representing immortality, new life, blessings and fertility, the branches of the tree reach into the sky, while the roots burrow deep into the earth; uniting heaven, earth and the underworld. Having seen several different variations on walls in our hotel rooms as well as restaurants, we are keen to pick one out to bring home.

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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Making our way back to Hotel Le Plaza (again), we are stuck in a traffic jam (again). The cars are completely stationary, and we soon become aware that several cars in front of us make a turn. Serge goes off to investigate what the problem is, and comes back to explain that there was an accident between a car and a motorbike, and all the bystanders have taken the side of the motorcyclist. They then set about beating the car driver, who very wisely retreated to the safety of his vehicle. That didn't stop the mob apparently, and now they are pelting his car with stones. Justice Haitian style!

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We also decide to get out of here before this escalates. That means driving through a 'less-than-salubrious' neighbourhood, and we are advised to close the windows and put the cameras away. So what do I do? Take photos of course...

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With so many cars having turned around to avoid the melee and are now travelling the opposite direction, the traffic is still terribly slow moving, so it's a great relief to finally arrive at the hotel. This being our third visit to Le Plaza in the last week, it's like coming home.

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Feeling awfully jaded and quite unwell by now, I am rather grateful we don't have any plans for the rest of the afternoon; and after re-packing for tomorrow's journey home, we take a siesta. I notice I have the beginnings of a cold sore on my lip, something that causes me some concern after last time I had one, which developed a secondary infection, resulting a several courses of antibiotics.

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When Geffrard turns up to pick us up later, he brings me a gift from Serge: spicy peanut butter! What a wonderful surprise.

This evening we have arranged to meet up with Jacqui (the local agent) and Paul (the Bradt Guidebook writer we met in Jacmel) for dinner. Jacqui has also invited Dawn (she was at the carnival with us too), who is bringing a friend; so it is quite a happy little band who turn up at La Plantation Restaurant in Pétionville.

The cocktails are good, the food is great and the conversation is even better.

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It's a delightful way to end this tour – we have found Haiti to exceed our expectations in every way. This small nation has so much more to offer than the usual Caribbean attractions of sunshine, beaches and sunset cocktails – although it has its fair share of those too! With extremely welcoming people and an intriguing culture, I am already planning my return visit to delve deeper into its vodou customs and celebrations.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:37 Archived in Haiti Tagged beaches art planes beach history travel vacation hotel museum caribbean artisans photography cocktails revolution slavery pilot metalwork artists aerial_photography slaves spicy haiti undiscovered_destinations canon_eos_5d_iii voyages-lumiere port-au-prince port_au_prince baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou cap-haïtien haitien_revolution haitien_food haitien_art labadee cormier cap_hatien petionville croix_des_bouquets jacques_eugene sugar_cane haitian_revolution peanut_butter Comments (1)

London - Atlanta - Port au Prince

Haiti?

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

Ever since announcing our next holiday destination, I have been faced with questions such as “why?”, “where?”, “what's there?”... but mostly “is it safe?”. This, of course is nothing unusual for me; after all we have been to a fair few unconventional destinations over the years.

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The first time someone replied “I went there” I got really excited and started to quiz them about the country: the people, the customs, the sights... only to find they spent half a day on a private beach (in Cap Haitien) belonging to their cruise company. Sigh.

We did have a few safety concerns ourselves as a result of the elections which were due on the 17th January, then adjourned until the 24th and subsequently postponed indefinitely. As a result there have been a number of fierce and bloody demonstrations throughout the country, something we have been following quite closely through the media. The violence, however, is not directed at tourists, and with a guide and driver at our disposal, we should be able to avoid any volatile areas.

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My initial interest in Haiti as a travel destination was piqued back in the early 2000s after talking to a travel agent friend who'd been. We even got as far as arranging a tour of the country through the Bristol based tour operator he worked for at the time... and then political unrest hit the small Caribbean country (yet again) and the plans were shelved.

(And there's the answer for those of you who don't know where Haiti is, it is the western part of the Hispaniola island. The other – larger – part is much better known: Dominican Republic. People sometimes get Haiti confused with the South Pacific island of Tahiti, or they think it is in Africa.)

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So, fast forward 15 years or so, and we find ourselves yet again planning a trip to Haiti, this time courtesy of Undiscovered Destinations.

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Haiti is not exactly a popular tourist destination, something that is reflected in the lack of flights covering Port au Prince. I was hoping to fly via Miami and kill two birds with one stone by being able to catch up with our good friends Homer and Eddie, but after researching a LOT of options, it turned out that flying via Atlanta was way cheaper. Sorry guys.

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So... let's go!

The trip doesn't start well, with David realising that he's forgotten his wallet. By now we are half way to London, so he will just have to do without. (Thanks Lyn for rummaging through the clothes in his wardrobe to put his mind at ease that the wallet was in fact at home, not lost somewhere en route). So much for having a packing list, and double-, triple- and quadruple- checking it... I guess I will be paying for everything on this trip then.

We have booked the Extra Legroom seats for the long haul journey across the Atlantic, and it proves to be a wise move. Not only does it indeed offer lots of space, we are able to spread out and get a row to ourselves each!

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As usual, I am asleep on take-off and only wake up in time for the food – which incidentally is very good, especially the salted caramel ganache.

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The journey is mostly very pleasant, apart from the man whose breath is so bad I am convinced someone has farted; the chap who plays games on his mobile phone with the sound on, and the ***** on-flight games: who, in their wisdom, decided that touch screens on aircraft seat backs were a good idea?

Transit through Atlanta turns out to be a surprisingly smooth operation, with its self service immigration, friendly staff and total lack of queues. The luggage is just arriving as we get to the conveyor belt, but in our excitement we pick up someone else's bag. Fortunately David discovers it before leaving the hall – otherwise it could have been a nasty surprise, for us and them!

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Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport may be a mouthful to say, but it's not a bad place to spend a couple of hours. The airport itself is about as huge as its name and is the world's busiest airport by passenger traffic, with some 260,000 passengers daily through 207 departure gates! In 2011 Atlanta was named the world's most efficient airport - I can see why.

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While taking a few photos around the concourse, a charming young female staff member approaches us with the suggestion of including both of us in the picture. Although a pretty crap photographer, she is delightful, and we chat for a while, before going our separate ways.

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She may not be a good picture-taker, but we do forgive her, as she turns out to be working on the gate of our flight (which is as much of a surprise to her as it is to us). When she sees us, she grabs our boarding cards, heads over to her computer, and returns with new cards - upgraded boarding cards. What a darling! That more than makes up for an out-of-focus picture!

With not only better seats, but a whole row each (again), the flight from Atlanta to Port au Prince is a pleasure. More so when we get free cocktails - as described by the air stewardess, the Blue Chair Bay Island Punch (coconut rum, orange juice and cranberry) tastes like "vacation in a glass!"

The holiday has started!

On arrival at Port au Prince, we are met by Geffrard, our designated driver here in Haiti, who whisks us past the hustling porters, through the dump that is Port au Prince by night (insisting that we lock all the doors and wind the windows up) to Le Plaza Hotel.

And what an oasis it is, with leafy grounds surrounding a swimming pool, an open air restaurant, plenty of trees, and nicely air conditioned rooms. Too tired to eat dinner, we have a quick drink and retire to bed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:43 Archived in Haiti Tagged flight holiday virgin atlanta heathrow delta haiti hartsfield–jackson_atlanta-inte virgin-airlines trans-atlantic-flight undiscovered-destinations voyages-lumiere port-au-prince Comments (1)

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