Travel: Report from Haiti
August 11, 2011
SAINT-MICHEL de L’ATTALAYE, Haiti – A compas band, playing the hypnotic, sultry rhythms of Haiti’s national dance music, greeted us at Port-au-Prince International Airport. Unlike many other styles of Haitian music, compas lyrics typically bypass politics. Recent elections changed that tradition, linking compas directly to the presidential office. His Excellency Michel Martelly, previously known as “Sweet Mickey,” the slightly outrageous compas singer, was elected president in May’s runoff election. His political resume is a little thin, but the country is holding its collective breath, hoping for the best.
Welcome to Haiti.
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Driving in Haiti isn’t for the faint of heart. Barbara settled into “Haiti mode” and slid in behind the wheel of a rental car, while Bill rode shotgun. Barbara has been photographing in Haiti since 1993 and considers Haiti to be her second country. Bill, an Aspen real estate agent and former mayor, has accompanied her on the last two trips and is rapidly becoming an old hand. A Vodou pilgrimage that would take place in the coming days was the focus of this trip.
We took a diagonal route across the city that meandered up and down hills and gave us our first look at damage from the 2010 earthquake. Battered tent encampments were wedged into every piece of open land beginning just outside the airport. Some appeared abandoned; others were teeming with life. Originally the number of people left homeless by the quake was estimated to be 1.5 million, but recently revised estimates are half that number. We were surprised to find so much of the city standing as it did before the ground shook.
Our route brought us to the famous Hotel Oloffson, a late 19th century gingerbread mansion that was once a presidential residence. For the next couple of nights it was our residence. The hotel served as the backdrop for Graham Greene’s novel “The Comedians” and was home in Haiti for the rich and famous until the mid-1980s, when AIDS and political turmoil drove tourists away and journalists and news crews replaced them.
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Since 1987 mizik rasin (roots music) band leader Richard Morse has managed the hotel with an eccentric style. Never one to shy away from political commentary, Richard’s carnival song lyrics, performed by his band RAM, have been his political voice. Richard’s new political voice is as an advisor to his second cousin, President Michel Martelly. “Minister” without portfolio.
Next on our agenda was a three-hour road trip over the mountains to Jacmel, another city that is trying to recover from the quake. It is said that Haiti has more artists per capita than any other nation in the world, and a visit to this 18th century seaside city gives credence to that notion. After a one-year absence and amidst rubble, ruins and tent camps, Carnival, the heart and soul of Jacmel, was celebrated in its customary, creative style this year. Revelers donned papier-mache masks and elaborate costumes depicting fierce monsters, devils, and political figures both past and present. As always, political satire was a hit with the crowds lining the parade route.
The Cine Institute, where students are immersed in all aspects of filmmaking, found a new campus on the outskirts of Jacmel. Before the quake dust had settled, students dug their cameras out of the institute’s partly collapsed building and began filming history in the making. The revival of this long-neglected and recently damaged city depends on this kind of creative energy combined with the efforts of entrepreneurs like Michael Capponi, who orchestrated the rejuvenation of South Beach in Miami. His newest project, Le Village de Port-Jacmel, a 44-room, four-star boutique hotel, is underway. We were impressed with the renovation of the former coffee-sorting building that will house the hotel.
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Barbara had arranged for us to stay at Mayor Lisette Casimir’s home in the village of Saint-Michel de L’Attalaye. A newly constructed road had eliminated hours of bone-jarring travel to this remote, interior valley in north central Haiti, and we arrived in half the time previously required for the trip. This was to be our base, from which we would travel daily to the Vodou pilgrimage site.
We stayed five nights with Madame Lisette, in a room usually occupied by her daughter, who was working for American Airlines in Port-au-Prince. Like most Haitian homes, the mayor’s was built with masonry blocks and a corrugated iron roof, which is ideal for collecting potable water. After settling in, we joined the mayor on the thatched veranda and Bill presented a letter of introduction from Mayor Mick Ireland of Aspen. Mayor Lisette was quite touched and flattered to receive Ireland’s letter. She speaks both French and Creole, and has a pretty good working knowledge of English, learned while living in Toronto for two years and for six months in Montreal as a young woman.
The Mayor’s property is part of a perfectly gridded compound, which is divided into half- and one-acre parcels. Some members of the Haitian Diaspora have built homes next to the mayor’s land. One neighbor, who made his “fortune” in New York City as a florist and retired to his home town of St. Michel, plays dominos regularly with the mayor. Dominos is the second national pastime, almost on a par with soccer in popularity. The domino players made their moves with gusto and an entertaining intensity.
• • • •
Mayor Lisette is a remarkable person. She is in her mid-50s, open, intelligent and personable. She is shaped somewhat like Oprah Winfrey, attractive, and almost always wears blue jeans. She moves with elegance and grace. We became fast friends and soon were talking local politics, Haiti’s post-quake challenges and the world at large. Madame Lisette summed up her take on Haiti’s new president by showing us a photo of “Sweet Mickey” on her Blackberry; he was performing on stage wearing a risque outfit. She smiled saying “this is to remind me of who he really is.” The Mayor voted for his opponent.
Atop a small mountain just above the mayor’s village is a sacred grotto, to which Vodou pilgrims travel from all over Haiti. Interestingly, Mayor Lisette was born in St. Michel, and yet has only been to the grotto once.
It was the rainy season and our four-wheel-drive vehicle slipped and slid along a narrow dirt track. At the base of the mountain we ascended a steep, rugged trail that climbed over sharp limestone outcroppings. This is the route taken by thousands of pilgrims to the Grotto de Saint Francis de Assisi, one of six major Vodou pilgrimage sites in the country. From makeshift stalls that lined the trail, merchants sold food and pilgrimage paraphernalia. Vodou priests and priestesses consulted with patients before taking them into the sacred grotto, where healing and cleansing rituals were performed. Hypnotizing Vodou drumming got louder as we approached the entrance. Once inhabited by Taino Indians, the grotto became a pilgrimage site for the followers of the Vodou faith some 150 years ago. Pilgrims make this journey annually during the week of the summer solstice, and this year we joined them.
Descending into the grotto was like entering another world. The surrounding darkness was broken in several locations by shafts of sunlight that fell through small openings in the grotto ceiling. Smoke from nearby fires mixed with the near-vertical light beams. At points where beams met the ground, devotees performed rituals and communicated with the spirits.
Around noon during each of the four days, Bill sought relief from the intensity of the ceremonies below, deserted Barbara and ascended from the grotto, covering his eyes from the intensity of the sun and heat. Bill would then find a rock outcropping on which to sit. Dozens of people, young and old, would approach him on his perch and Bill felt like he was the mayor of Aspen again, receiving citizens on the mall from 1983 to 1991. Quickly he realized, that this was not so, as he warded off seekers of $2 handouts and/or ways to go to America. He would politely fend them off in his best French.
One day on the rock his cell phone rang. The caller was a mutual Aspen friend and the signal was clear as a bell atop this remote mountain. Haiti has a quite sophisticated national cellular service. Around 1 p.m. each day, Bill would descend back into the grotto to join Barbara, who was photographing pilgrims as they prayed and received healing treatments from priests. This year, fewer pilgrims made the trip, owing at least in part to the October 2010 cholera outbreak. River water contaminated by a poorly constructed latrine used by infected Nepalese United Nations soldiers was found to be the source of the epidemic.
After our last visit to the grottos and before we departed St. Michel, Mayor Lisette introduced us to other villagers by taking us to schools, churches, and shops. We witnessed her warmth and friendliness with her constituents, and the villagers radiated a strong affection back to the Mayor at every point. We even visited a school she started in 1978, not long after her return from Canada. She had persuaded a nonprofit Canadian group, for whom she worked in Canada, to provide seed money, along with some Belgian Catholics. Both groups still provide support some 30 years later. We visited her K-4 school, where students were taking exams, all dressed to the nines in their uniforms.
The students have created a two-acre vegetable garden, where they have learned to grow crops environmentally and sustainably. One new classroom was built after the earthquake to accommodate dozens of orphans from Port-au-Prince. The Mayor told us her basic philosophy is that Haiti’s future is in her children, because they can be taught new ways of thinking and won’t rely entirely on the old ways. She is an enlightened leader, who walks her talk.
The Mayor wanted us to visit a sugar cane processing plant to witness raw sugar being pressed and fermented to make clarin (raw rum), a potent local libation. Most of the clarin is shipped to the rum distillery in Port-au-Prince, where the world famous Rhum Barbancourt is made. Sugar cane is the prominent crop of the St. Michel valley. In an exciting response to the problem of deforestation, by-products from sugar processing are now being used in St. Michel for cooking fires, instead of charcoal.
We found many Haitians to be resilient and optimistic in the face of very tough odds. Madame Lisette is the personification of this “never say die” attitude. We both look forward to our next visit, when we plan to drive with her over the mountains to Marmelade, the ancestral village of former President Rene Preval, one of her long time political colleagues, and an acquaintance of Barbara’s from her 1990s photojournalism days in Haiti.
Upon our return to the capital we decide to treat ourselves to dinner in Petionville, a suburb four miles and 2,500 feet up into the mountains. It is home to the majority of the capital’s upper middle class and elite citizens. Although most of Petionville was spared earthquake damage, the realities of the greater devastation are everywhere. Art galleries, fine restaurants, night clubs and stylish shops exist next to overcrowded tent compounds and a myriad of street vendors. It was a gritty scene, as the haves and the have-nots reluctantly coexist.
After dining al fresco, we began the descent back to Port au Prince and noticed a familiar sound. In the uphill lane a Rara band progressed slowly on foot. Horns, drums and percussion provided a pulsating African beat that inspired a dancing crowd that followed closely behind. Cars were backed up half a mile. Caught in traffic? We just rolled down the windows, listened and grooved. Rara is a vibrant street festival that belongs to peasants and the urban poor. In this case, it was a spontaneous celebration separate from the official Rara season that begins when Carnival ends and continues through Lent.
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Our last day in Haiti was spent touring some of the hardest-hit areas in the city. In addition to countless homes and commercial buildings, many of Haiti’s treasured historic buildings were destroyed, including the National Palace, Parliament, Palace of Justice, National Cathedral and Iron Market. The one bright spot we found was the rebuilt/restored Iron Market, a 19th century landmark that houses more than a thousand small merchants. It was a beacon of hope in a devastated downtown commercial district where the shells of 18th and 19th century buildings line the streets, their interior floors having collapsed one into the other. Many, but not most, had collapsed entirely. Twice during the 18th century, earthquakes left the city in ruins. Each time it was rebuilt and so it will be again. The saying today is, “build back better.”
We again asked ourselves the question that we asked on the first day: Could 316,000 people, as the Haitian Government says, have perished in the earthquake? The results of a January 2011 door-to-door survey conducted by the U.S. government indicate that up to 85,000 lives were lost. The real number will never be known, but probably lies somewhere in between. Regardless, life goes on. We departed feeling cautiously optimistic about Haiti’s future.