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Tunisie

A lush South where color and light are different  

 

In downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital, we were looking in vain for the hundreds of tents still shown by the media. Everywhere, there are cranes and fences enclosing construction areas and new buildings, all white and particularly nice in their colonial style, such as the Court of Cassation that was completed a few months ago.

Yes, we saw dirt roads transformed into fields of mud after a rainfall. Yes, we saw rows of huts made of wood, plastic and tarpaulin and heaps of rubbish, in particular near street markets. But we also saw a city full of life, vibrant with its numerous outdoor markets, artists’ studios, musicians and bus covered with colorful drawings and overflowing with packages and passengers, as talkative as they are smiling.

Full of dreams 

Haiti is a fertile land for culture with its writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and singers expressing and sharing the identity and the cultural values of their nation, in the country as well as outside of its borders. Creativity seems to be an integral part of the survival instinct and resilience of Haitians.

As a matter of fact, even in the products displayed on the small street vendor carts, the color shines with a different light. The color is not the only element responsible for the atmosphere, but the way it is played certainly is. The products are always displayed with harmony. Here, the curve prevails over a straight line, creating a harmonious delight for the eyes.

Besides, if you look carefully at the works of art produced by Haitian artists, you will rarely see straight lines, but mostly curves. It seems that this comes from a voodoo influence, whose presence is undeniable in the country’s artistic creations.

A mesmerizing cemetery

We got an excellent idea of that voodoo influence during our visit to Port-au-Prince’s cemetery. Immense, it occupies 9 hectares delimited by whitewashed walls. Here there is no well-marked, flower-filled alley. Everything seems to be a mess with abandoned graves, a mess we are sure cannot be accounted by just the last earthquake.

Edmond, our guide, tells us that the small, sinuous path we follow across the whole cemetery is known as “the highway”… It leads us to a big oak tree, named Granbwa, “l’arbre à offrandes”. It is literally covered with small red and black dolls attached by bits of strings. According to Edmond, depending on the position of the dolls, it indicates love, disunity or even a persecution spell. If the dolls are facing one another, it means we want to keep the loved ones together, and if they turn their back to each other, a break-up of the couple is being requested.

At a turn in a path, we discover a small church, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs. All around, we are offered icons, candles and perfumes that are used in voodoo practice, while a few women, with or without babies in their arms, ask for a few pennies.

A little further, a well-maintained crypt “Les Filles de la Sagesse”, and another one claiming “Bonne fête à tous les morts” illustrated by rather morbid images, around which a few young and old women loiter. We preferred not to ask what they were waiting for…

It was a rather unsettling visit, where the religious and the magical intertwine!

A bubbling culture

Using wood, metal, fabric and other recycled products, artisans and artists create handicrafts and true works of art: dolls made out of fabric, sculptures made out of wood or cut iron, chairs and tables decorated with colored painting, etc.

Traces of those artists can be seen everywhere: in Pétion-ville, where flowered villas and elegant restaurants rub shoulders with numerous art galleries; at the Marché en Fer, housed in a flamboyant red and green building, mixing both Parisian and African styles. We are in the heart of the commercial activity with no less than 900 displays allowing artists and artisans to offer their production with engaging smiles.

This is where we met Edmond Ronald who specializes in recuperating fabrics, bottles and dolls. He uses this material to create characters, both imposing and unsettling and mostly inspired from voodoo. Edmond will also take us to another artist’s studio: André Eugène. Sculptor and recycler, his monumental pieces mostly made of wood and iron have been displayed in many exhibitions in Europe and America. His studio overflows with works of art of his own and of students of his, since he believes in the importance of transmitting his knowledge.

Music is not at rest

Music is also omnipresent in Haiti. After all, we should remember that the last president they elected, Michel Martelly, was once a popular singer! Every January, Port-au-Prince hosts an important jazz festival with the remarkable participation of Haitian musicians and their particular Creole-jazz style.

In addition, some of those musicians perform in different restaurants and hotels in the capital, including Hotel Oloffson, a real institution in Port-au-Prince, where every Thursday night, food enthusiasts join the local intellects and travelers who are avid to learn local traditions.

This hotel is a good example of Haiti’s Gingerbread style with its woodworked towers and balconies. Built in the centre of the city by the family of Tirésias Simon-Sam, a former president of the country, at the end of the 19th century, the hotel seems to have defied every earthquake since 1896. Its suites, which are as many art galleries, are named as per celebrities who stayed there: John Barrymore, Graham Greene, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger… We had a good time sharing an excellent white fish lunch on its large veranda, vowing to come back on a Thursday night.

A few memorable lodging experiences

In Port-au-Prince, we stayed at Villa Bambou, a lovely hotel boutique in a quiet neighborhood between downtown and Pétion-ville. On a hill, the view of the sea and downtown Port-au-Prince is awesome. The pool, as well as the vast and lush gardens, encourage relaxation. The 8 rooms are spacious with all modern luxury expected from a hotel boutique. The architecture, the care given to details in the interior as well as the exterior design and the works of art provide the perfect décor for an absolutely perfect stay. And the fine cuisine served to guests certainly does not rest! We had a real treat.

The owners, a couple with Italian origins, decided to refurbish the building, a former Coca Cola head office, into a facility of choice after the 2010 earthquake, as a challenge to nature and an act of faith towards Haiti. Mission fully accomplished, we would say!

In Jacmel, the Florita is another judicious choice. Its blue and while colonial building, dating back to 1888, when the city was thriving thanks to coffee, was converted into a hotel in 1999. Its lobby, a real art gallery, its monumental staircase and colonial garden take us back to a bygone era.

Dan’s Creek Hotel in Port Salut, with its 12 rooms and restaurant where the two brothers Louis create a gourmet rendezvous with their international fusion Creole cuisine is worth mentioning. Their conches à la Creole, grilled goat, coarse salt fish, griot, fried plantain, guinea fowl with nuts, cabri ragout, and pumpkin soup are some of many finger-licking delights!

At l’Ile-à-Vache, our base was a charming and luxurious guesthouse: Les Suites La Colline. A dream place in the middle of decoration that is natural and created by the many artists whose works of art seduce us in the indoor walls as well as outdoors. Here as well, Véliciane Dupont’s cuisine with her famous and delicious riz djon-djon, a rice colored by black mushrooms, intoxicated us … in the right senses.

A little more south

On the road, which was recently redone, that takes us from Port-au-Prince to the South, the landscape becomes greener as we swallow up the kilometers. Water was more present and the soil richer. We could feel the Caribbean more and more!

It was market day and the small towns we crossed - Miragoâne, Fonds-des-Nègres, Croix-des-Bouquets, Léogâne, Petit Goâve - are animated with displays of fruits, vegetables and clothes of all colors along the main street, while a busy crowd was milling around.

All the way along the road, we saw new construction that was easy to spot since they were made out of gray concrete blocks that nobody had yet time to paint, a sign that little by little the country is getting back on its feet from the last tragedy that particularly affected some of those small towns.

Les Cayes

After four hours of driving, which was done by our private driver – it is also possible to board a crowed minibus for those who are looking for local color and smells – we finally arrived at Les Cayes.

With its population of 70,000, it is a relatively important city, with all the services including bustling markets offering fresh products and fish, since many fishermen from the surroundings bring their catches here.

A few local attractions could be interesting, such as the ruins of the Citadelle des Platons, an immense fortress built in 1804 at an altitude of 600 meters, thus offering unobstructed views. A few hours of walking have to be planned to get there, unless you decide to board a local tap-tap.

Jacmel

Not far from Les Cayes, Jacmel, with its white cathedral, is a seaside city with an interesting historic centre and a dynamic community of artists. Its colonial past, dating back to the golden hours of coffee, left a few lovely houses with wrought-iron balconies, reminding us of those in New Orleans.

Some of them were destroyed in 2010 and artists live in other ones, using them as studios and galleries for their sculptures, paintings, mural decorations and work made of papier mâche.

Moro Baruk is one of the artists who creates fabulous, impressive masks made of papier mâche and was probably inspired by the very popular annual carnival. His masks are famous, since a Victoria’s Secret model wore one for a photo shoot. About twenty artists work from papier mâche in his studio, creating masks and other objects. Interesting fact: they make their papier mâche from recycled paper and bags of cement they recuperate from builders.

Port Salut

A small village, 30 km from Les Cayes, the birthplace of Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former president of the country. A tap-tap will take you there easily.

Its beautiful palm-lined beach, where tourists are few, is worth a swim and a few hours of relaxation under the sun or the shade and a walk to the cascade flowing nearby if you don’t feel too lazy...

Another worthwhile attraction is the largest system of caves in the Caribbean, known as “Grotte Marie-Jeanne”. Formed 60 million years ago, its 54 chambers follow a 4-km labyrinth of galleries spread over three levels, covered with stalagmites and stalactites.

Haitian vetiver

Essential oil users surely know about vetiver. Sometimes qualified as “false patchouli”, it is used in perfumes and soap and also serves to protect wool and fur from insects. What is less known, however, is that Haiti produces 50% of the vetiver oil in the world and that Les Cayes is considered the international capital of this production.

Many plantations are concentrated in Port Salut and we can visit a factory to appreciate the very specific odor of that oil and even buy a small supply to take home. After all, it is recognized to stimulate the vascular system and is used in massage for its anti-inflammatory properties and for the stimulation of blood circulation.

Jérémie

Almost one hundred kilometers from Les Cayes, the commune of Jérémie is known for its pristine sandy beaches along turquoise warm waters, lush landscapes and relaxed atmosphere. For a bit more action, mountains in the background are invitations to trekking.

The architecture of some of its green and red Gingerbread houses is also worth mentioning.

A bit secluded, this commune is also known as the cultural center of the country. Many poets and writers have elected residence in Jérémie, probably inspired by this lovely place. Besides, renowned Haitian writers, such as Emile
Olivier, Edmond La Forest and René Philoctète found inspiration there. Without forgetting the most famous among them: Alexandre Dumas (père), author of the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and his grandson Alexandre Dumas junior, mostly known for La Dame aux Camélias. Remains of the birth house of the latter, an ancient coffee plantation house, l’Habitation Latibolière, can be visited.

End of the journey

From Les Cayes, we sailed towards l’Île-à-Vache, a small 15-km-long by 5-km-wide island in the southwest of Haiti. On the island free of cars, live 14,000 Ilavachois, mostly fishermen, breeders and farmers. It is a paradise we have already described in a previous article.

Without any hesitation

Conflicting messages concerning Haiti are many. Violence and uprisings during the last elections, images of tent camps in Port-au-Prince and piles of garbage counter the image conveyed by its minister of Tourism chanting that “the Pearl of the Caribbean is back!”

What about the real picture?

We can only answer that Haiti is, as a matter of fact, all of that and much more and we testify with our own experience.

Yes, in Haiti one must accept leaving behind a certain level of comfort and stability, not only physical. One needs to enjoy the present moment just like Haitians seem to be doing, while expecting to be surprised at any moment by a new scene. To expect to be destabilized. In sum, be open to the unexpected and the differences.

It is worth mentioning that we never felt threatened, but rather pleasantly surprised, by the “Bonjour,” which is always accompanied by engaging smiles and most of the time, a desire to engage in conversation.

And without hesitation, we will certainly go back to continue the conversation!


Christiane Théberge

This reportage was made possible thanks to the invitation of Lambert Farand who invited us to stay at Les Suites La Colline, at l'Île-à-Vache.


 

Construction in Port-au-Prince

Traces of last earthquake, Port-au-Prince

Granbwa at the cemetery

At the cemetery

Marché en Fer

Work by Edmond Ronald

André Eugène's monumental sculpture 

Hotel Oloffson

Villa Bamboo 

Room at La Florita

Dan's Creek, Port-Salut

Market day at Fonds-des-Nègres

Mask from Jacmel

Beach, Port-Salut

Jérémie

Les Suites La Colline, Île-à-Vache 

 

 

 

 

  

 

   

 

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