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: