7 Jun 2014

Remembering Jacmel, Pt. II

Once the tour was over we returned to the car, as we would be driving to Bassin Bleu. You should probably know, dear reader, that I just paused at the last sentence for about fifteen minutes, staring blankly at my laptop screen. I am not quite sure just how to begin to describe Bassin Bleu, but I pray that I will never forget even the smallest detail of it in my memory. Well...

Views on the way to the second pool

Small caves on the way

Scaling down to the second pool at the end of our hike

One can only drive a certain distance into the area before being forced into a half-mile hike to the waterfalls. There are three pools in total (hence the correct, unused, term for the area being Bassins (pl.) Bleu), each larger than and further away from the last. We hiked up to the second, and had to climb down once there to access the pools, which was an experience. Jumping in to the blue water, standing directly beneath the waterfall and swimming casually whilst taking in my surroundings gave me the opportunity to reflect on my time in Haiti up to that point, thinking about the things I have learned and un-learned, the friendships I have made and the pure happiness and sadness I have experienced and seen.

I am aware that in many ways this blog has highlighted the sheer beauty of Haiti, and intentionally so. I wanted, in my own small way, to "rewrite" Haiti in some of your minds, show you the similarities of Haiti to the West, teach you about its history and be an unofficial ambassador for Haiti's current growth and future promise. But I have also seen sorrow. I will never, ever forget the expression I saw on a young boy's face as he spotted our car turning out of one of those s-shaped bends on the way to Jacmel. He was squatting on the side of the road, his body hovering over some produce for sale and his eyes peering earnestly down the road for the next visitor to pass him by. I saw him, in this stilled state, for a fraction of a second before his half-vacant stare suddenly became animated. Recognition turned to hope which turned to movement. He quickly grabbed his bowl of produce (I couldn't quite make out what exactly he was holding as we were driving quite fast) and took four or five quick steps forward, stretching out that bowl like an exhausted first-time mother thrusting her daughter into your hands to give herself a break. There was not, however, the similar masked joy of parenthood of said exhausted mother here. I watched his face intently throughout those moments. He, too, had fixed his eyes intently on our car and held on tightly until it was clear that the driver had not acknowledged him and would not slow down. The entire scenario could not have lasted for more than three seconds, but the effect it had on me was (and still is, inexplicably) potent.

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, it's not just endless fun and lovely weather that I have experienced here. I have been educated in more ways than I could have ever imagined whilst first boarding at Heathrow one month ago. I will remember Jacmel not only as being a luxurious end to a great four weeks, but also as being the conclusion to one of the best lessons I could ever have been taught.

Remembering Jacmel, Pt. I

Sunset view of Cyvadier Plage from the hotel dining area

It is currently 1.29pm, and I am sitting in my living room finishing off my brunch. As I look out of the windows in anticipation of the impending storm to hit London this evening, I am reminded of the wonderful 28 degrees weather I was experiencing just last week as I was swinging gently in a large hammock overlooking the Cyvadier Hotel beach. Of course, there is nothing quite like being at home, and indeed the ability to call somewhere in this world "home" is a privilege in itself, but I wouldn't mind being back at that hotel for three days again: seeing the sights, meeting the locals and making more great memories.

On Thursday morning I set off to Jacmel, a town in south-east Haiti, for a final short break before leaving for home the following Monday morning. Along with Cap-Haïtien, Jacmel was another area of Haiti that I was told I had to visit, or simply couldn't leave without seeing it. The journey there was by car and took around four hours, but were easily endured as a result of the stunning views of the southern bay. These views, thankfully, also compensated for the seemingly never ending sharp s-shape bends in the mountain roads. I have never had a problem with car journeys or heights. But one thing I don't like so much is the prospect of falling from a vast height, and so whenever I was not peering tentatively at the distance between the outer wheels and each sheer drop, I was seeking solace in that view.

View of the bay. We stopped the car in the middle of the road to get these shots.

The journey was worth it. The Cyvadier Plage Hotel was a beautiful resort with welcome amenities and friendly staff members, and I couldn't wait to get my weekend bag to my room so that I could unpack and visit the pool or beachfront. The hotel rooms were spread out across the grounds in small two-storey buildings which were different to the singular glassy, high rise buildings I have seen in the UK and parts of Europe. Midway through my trip I learned that since 2010 people felt unsafe being in high rises as the effects of collapse were greater than those in lower builds. Thus, 90 percent (if not all) of the reconstruction and new constructs following the earthquake would be built with a maximum of three storeys to minimise the pancake effect.

View from my room at Cyvadier Hotel

After unpacking, spending some time by the pool, exploring the grounds and eventually seeking out the wifi to say hello to friends and family back home, we sat down for dinner. The hotel is well-known in Haiti for specialising in fresh seafood caught by local fisherman on the same day as served (I had seen these same fisherman walking through the grounds with huge sacks of produce as I finished off a novel by the pool), and so I was excited to try out what was on the menu.

Friday morning was an eventful one. I set out immediately after breakfast for a walk around the town.

Above: Photos from Hotel Florita, Jacmel

Papier-mâché plays a large part in the culture of Jacmel. Each year there is a carnival, where participants don large papier-mâché masks similar to the one above. The man on my left (above) owned a small store selling masses of said masks and other papier-mâché crafted items.

Crowded marketplace in Jacmel 

Jacmel is known to many as "Little New Orleans". Like the Louisiana town, which was also hit by a natural disaster in 2005, Jacmel is decorated by bright colours and quaint French-style architecture. We explored a few of the old hotels (some, such as the Hotel Florita, were still functional), art galleries and shops and walked through the packed marketplace (a denser, hotter version of Dalston Market in some ways), learning historical tidbits and taking too many photos in the process. Jacmel was probably my favourite part of Haiti for its art, its architecture, its vibrancy and its beautiful natural landmarks, and I am so glad that I got to see it before I left.

Above: artwork and architecture in Jacmel

1 Jun 2014

On Familiar Faces in Foreign Lands

On Tuesday evening I was invited to the Montana Hotel in Petionville hosted by the British Ambassador to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to welcome my friend and reverend Dr Leslie Griffiths, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, to Haiti. Leslie (as I call him) has known me for as long as I can remember, has watched me grow up and has been has become a second father and good friend to me over the past few years, so I was absolutely thrilled that I would be able to see him on foreign soil.

Many of you have asked me variations of the question "why, of all places, did you decide to go to Haiti?" That reason is largely due to Leslie. After spending around ten years as a missionary in Haiti in the 1970s, Leslie (as most others do when visiting this magical place!) fell in love with its history, its people and its promise. And so, after years and years of hearing of the wonders of this place and with a bit of time to spare before going back to law school this Autumn, I wanted to experience it for myself. And what an experience it's been!

The welcome event was a great opportunity to meet some of the parliamentary team that Leslie had travelled with, as well as other Haitian and Haiti-based representatives from companies and institutions covering a variety of sectors. As honouree, Leslie gave an address in both French and English, and formally introduced me to the guests by asking me to join him at the front (which I did not expect at all!) He closed his speech with a rendition of William Wordsworth's sonnet To Toussaint L'Ouverture (which you can read HERE), which I thought was incredibly apt as we are both English Literature scholars.

The following evening Her Excellency Pamela White, the US Ambassador for Haiti, received me into her beautiful Port-au-Prince residence for a dinner which also celebrating Leslie's arrival, and I was pleased to see a number of familiar faces from the night before and meet more of Leslie's good friends. The many stories of others' experiences of working abroad which were told over a fabulous three-course meal were so captivating that on many occasions I reconsidered my chosen career path in my mind! I am so grateful to Pamela for opening her doors to me and to Leslie for making me feel so welcome amongst his colleagues and oldest friends, and I have no doubt that I shall remain in contact with many of them in the near future.

Today is my last day here in Haiti. I have made so many friends, learned so much - about Haiti and about myself, and have been made to feel completely at home over the past four weeks. In many ways, I don't quite want to leave. Still, I am very much looking forward to being chez moi with my family, and catching up with friends. Before she left for home, one of my new friends from the Canadian volunteering group Third World Awareness made a statement to me that I completely agree with. She told me that it's the "Haiti magic" that makes people return after having visited once. I had heard the phrase used before my coming here and thought that it may have functioned subjectively: maybe I wouldn't like it here at all, maybe the twenty eight days would drag and I would yearn for home, or maybe I would feel compelled to pack my bags and leave earlier than planned. As I have mentioned in one of my previous posts, there is something about this place that makes such sentiment impossible.

This is not my last post, however (I still need to tell you all about our wonderful time in Jacmel, South-East Haiti) and so I will hold off on the sentiment. But I urge you all to give Haiti a chance. Particularly any of my fellow "Africano Brits" who may have followed this blog thus far. There's so much to learn here. I wish I had received my education sooner, and I wish for many of you who haven't to receive a similar education soon too.

P.S. Click the following links for Leslie's own musings on the events mentioned above:


27 May 2014

"Are We Still in Haiti?"

Tango dancers dancing to the orchestra music, led by Andres Tolcachir

On Friday evening I was invited to the Karibe Convention Center in Pétion-Ville for a gala event held by the Argentinian embassy in celebration of Fête des Mères Haïti (Haitian Mothers' Day). The event took the form of a concert featuring Haitian orchestra L'Orchestre Philharmonique Sainte Trinité, founded in 1956, and Argentinian tango dancers Cynthia Vielzebergs and Facundo Barrionuevo. The orchestra was led in part by David Cesar, director and professor of the school, and Argentinian Andres Tolcachir, and the programme contained a great mix of both Haitian- and Argentian-composed pieces. It was a beautiful night filled with food, drink and great company deriving from Haiti, America and Europe, and I overheard variations of the phrase "I never knew about this side of Haiti before!" more than once.

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Observatoire, a mountaintop restaurant overlooking the island of Haiti. Again, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the view and confused as to why more places like the Observatoire in Haiti (despite its slightly "touristy" vibe") aren't acknowledged by more Westerners.

Being here has been an incredibly bittersweet experience, and I have come to learn so much about the country and people, past and present. I am now somewhat protective over the country of Haiti and get so frustrated when I hear comments about how helpless or scary the place is. Of course, a significant number of factors over the years (loss of revenue from sugar plantations, mass livestock slaughtering from 1978-1982, earthquake in 2010 and so on) have contributed to the socio-economic weakening of the country as a whole, but as is the case any country in the world there is wealth here just as much as there is poverty. Aid workers and missionaries undoubtably do a fantastic job of providing support to the areas of the country that need it the most, but what I find damaging is that in many instances these same aid workers and missionary groups make little effort to seek or appreciate the "other side" of Haiti: its beautiful climate and natural wonders, its wealth, its rising (although still minimal) middle class. As citizens of the West it is just as important to recognise and highlight Haiti's strengths as well as its weaknesses.

View of the Southern coast of Haiti

Original artwork sold by vendors outside the restaurant

A change in the perspective of Haiti by Westerners will help to reconstruct Haiti's tarnished image and could, in time, boost Haiti's tourism sector, providing more jobs for local workers and slowly rebuilding the country's economy in turn. I know that there are many more factors affecting the viability of these suggestions, but I strongly believe this would be the start Haiti needs. Just as there is poverty in certain parts of London, there is great wealth here in Haiti. And the gala on Friday was a perfect example of that.

25 May 2014

Eight Hours, Three Days and a Horse

"You must see the Citadelle."

These words or similar, have been issued to me on many an occasion both before I set off for Haiti and since I have been here. As I have come to learn that this iconic heritage site lies at the centre of much of Haiti's colonial history, I knew that I could not let my 28 days come to an end without paying it a visit.

On Monday morning (probably last Monday, if you are on Greenwich Mean Time) I set off with a small volunteering group to Cap-Haïtien, an area situated in the north of Haiti. It's an eight-hour drive up to the guest house there and so I wanted to make sure the journey would be as comfortable as possible; with a book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera - very well written), headphones, fully-charged camera, nibbles and plenty of fluids in tow, I was armed and ready to go.

We made it to the house, a homely building tucked behind Cap's main boulevard overlooking the sea, in just under eight hours which I was incredibly grateful for, despite spending most of that time fast asleep (an achievement in itself - I cannot begin to describe the roughness of some of the roads here). I am somewhat embarrassed to say that the very first thing I did once I had lumbered my bags up the stairs and into my new room was enquire about wifi (first world problems) - so that I could continue blogging and connect with friends and family back in England via Skype. The wonders of technology!

I had organised a tour of the Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci Palace for myself via Voyages Lumière for the next morning (excellent service - thanks to Jacqui and the team for being so great!) and so I got an early night. It was about a 45-minute drive from the guest house to the visitors' "pitstop" in Milot, a check-in point at the very bottom of the mountain. It would have been too dangerous to drive up to the fortress, I was told, as it had rained heavily the night before. This "dilemma", however, was no problem at all for me because the only other way up was by horse! I had never ridden a horse before and so I was incredibly excited. The first few seconds were slightly daunting but it was an absolute joy after that. I was even reluctant to let one of the guides take the reins on some of the steeper and narrower inclines because I was convinced I had mastered the art! The hour-and-a-half horse ride up the mountain provided some amazing views.

Once we had reached the top, I was given a great one-on-one tour by a friendly, chatty Haitian man (who for some reason reminded me of my dad!) named Johnny. His English, he told me, was completely self-taught by ear and "may therefore be hard to understand", but I told him that that was nonsense because he is pretty much fluent. The fortress was not affected by the earthquake, and I was surprised to discover that this was despite the fact that the walls have no foundation and were handmade by workers using stone, mud, limestone and animals' blood. The creation itself was very impressive, but what was perhaps more interesting to me was the fact that I was standing in one of the very fortresses that was used in combat against the French post-independence and thus relates to Haiti's slave rebellion pre-1804 (it was Henri Christophe, a key leader in the rebellion, who had commissioned for this fortress to be built and who previously lent his name to the Citadelle before it took the Laferrière title).

Unfortunately it was too dangerous for me to ride a horse for a significant portion of the way down, and so I donned some old trainers and walked down some pretty steep and winding pathways with Johnny to the half-way "pitstop". I was able to re-mount at this point, which I was pleased about. Once we had returned safely to the base of the mountain, I was then taken to Sans-Souci Palace - the infamous royal palace in which Henri Christophe committed suicide in 1820 following the paralysis of half of his body. Again, being amongst these ruins was greatly sobering, and I felt privileged to be in a space which played such a key role in Haiti's rich history.

A moment of down-time was necessary after a busy morning. I went up to the Mont Joli Hotel for a cold drink and a brief swim.

After dinner we took a walk up the boulevard and stopped at a nearby restaurant for coffee (milkshake for me - soursop and milk. Absolutely amazing.) and ice-cream.

The next morning was equally as busy as the morning before. I accompanied the volunteering group to some small farms and schools in Dondon, a more rural community in Cap-Haitien. As part of their agricultural works the farms and schools had been gifted with goats as a source of milk and the group wanted to monitor the effectiveness of this initiative.

I'm not sure I was quite dressed for the occasion (note to self: mud and espadrilles do not mix) but arriving at the school and having a group of wonderfully happy school kids sing songs to me (again! How lucky am I?) made me forget all about the possibility of falling head-first onto the floor and ruining my all-white get-up.