Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Vodou Lounger: A tourist's eye-view of Haiti

     "Please don't go to Haiti -- it could be dangerous down there!" several worried friends begged me right before I left.  But boy were they wrong.  Haiti is totally fun!  I never had so much fun in my life as I did this past week in Haiti.  And this is my very own tourist guidebook to all the neat stuff that I've done down here.  Not exactly the Lonely Planet.  But boy am I having a good time.

     The most frequently asked question before I left was, "Are you going down there to do humanitarian work?"  No no no.  I'm going down there to be a tourist!

     To start with, I got a really great bargain deal on Expedia -- $800 to fly me from SFO to Port au Prince and five nights in a convenient, clean and quiet hotel called the Diquini Guest House.  This was absolutely the smartest thing that I did on this trip.  Why?  Because the manager of the guest house, a former member of the Haitian diaspora and long-time resident of Washington DC, took me under his wing and for a reasonable fee let me hire his driver, translated for me, kept me fed on nicely-flavored Haitian stew and rice -- and then took me off to explore Port au Prince.  www.diquinigh.com.

     First we went to the famous Hotel Oloffson where the ghosts of past American ex-pat writers such as Graham Greene and Lillian Hellman roam its gardens, terraces and gingerbread-style balconies; where Mick Jagger and even Jacqueline Kennedy have stayed -- and where the famous vudou-inspired RAM band was playing that night. http://hoteloloffson.com/

     The next day we explored what is left of the 2010 earthquake ruins, from what was left of the tragically beautiful stone-filigreed huge rose window of the old cathedral and the site of the historic National Palace to various small tent cities dotting Port au Prince that still house earthquake victims today, and the ruined buildings that still have market stalls precariously tucked into whichever concrete slabs are still left standing. 

     "So, Jane, how is Port au Prince actually doing now, four years after the quake?" you might ask, now that I'm an actual eye-witness to the scene of the crime.  It's not doing super-good, but not doing as badly as I had expected either.  Most of the tent cities are gone now -- as a lot of the homeless victims have by now squashed themselves in with relatives, left for the countryside or otherwise made do.

     "But what are Haitians really like?" you might ask next.  You can tell what Haitians are really like by the way that they drive.  There are only a handful of traffic signals in Port au Prince and even fewer rules of the road.  And Haitians drive very fast.  But they also drive in a way that is almost polite.  Everyone wants to get where they are going (and to get there fast) -- but no one wants to actually hurt anyone else.  I didn't see any road rage there.  Just people trying to get by.

     Basically, Haitians are just people trying to get by after having been dealt a very rough hand for a very long time, from the moment they were kidnapped from Africa and sold as slaves here -- starting in 1503, just eleven years after Columbus discovered the island.  And those slaves were expendable too, worked to death in a few years at most and then replaced by other new slaves. 

     Then after having fought for and achieved its freedom in 1804, Haiti was also constantly attacked, exploited and/or invaded for the next 200-plus years by America, Canada and various combinations of European nations.  And now Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, resembling the slums of Uganda or the slums of Zimbabwe.  And yet despite their poverty, which is dire and extreme, Haitians still remain stoically polite.

     Next we went off to the Iron Market bazaar to buy Haitian stuff to hang on my walls when I get home.  And then we drove all over Port au Prince -- the grand tour.  And that night we went off to Carnival in the Carrefour district.  Are you jealous yet?

     Carrefour's pre-Lenten carnival was like one gigantic block party and was actually as much fun as Berkeley in the 1960s, the benchmark against I always measure how much fun something is. 

     I also wanted to go see San Souci and the Citadel, UNESCO world heritage sites up  in Cap Haitien, but it was a seven-hour drive to get there, so we went to Fonds des Negres instead, which was only a three-hour drive, and I met a vodou master there.  "No one is cursing you," he told me.  Not even the NSA?  Good to know.  Then he performed a candlelight ritual to help my knees get better.  Then he pulled out a business card for his son who owns a botanica in SoCal who, for a price, could finish my knee treatment when I got back home http://www.felixbotanica.com/.  And then the vodou master pulled out his cell phone and started texting someone.  Guess the ritual was over.

      And there's also a cave in the mountains near Fonds des Negres where a "Suzan," a vodou spirit, resides.  But you have to get there by motorcycle and we didn't have time to do all that on this day trip.  So I just bought a sequin-covered vodou flag instead.

     "Have you seen any zombies in Haiti?" might be your next question.  Sorry, no.  But on my plane ride down here, we ran into a bunch of really scary turbulence over Chicago and I thought I was going to die.  So I had an epiphany.  "When you are in your mother's womb, the only way out is by going through a whole bunch of pain first -- and death is also like that.  First you pass through a whole bunch of pain and then, poof, you are out on the Other Side."  As a zombie?  Let's hope not.

    The next day we went out searching for Jean-Bertrand Aristide http://jpstillwater.blogspot.com/2014/02/haiti-me-in-search-of-jean-bertrand.html and then ended the day in that famous five-star hotel in Petionville -- just to see how the other 1% lives.  Trust me, they are living well.

     What else have I done down here?  I can't remember exactly.  But I will tell you this:  I have really had fun.  And if you ever want to go to Haiti too, I totally recommend it highly.  And, no, I'm not getting paid to say this.

PS:  While in Haiti, I also watched the winter Olympics on TV -- thus getting a chance to compare Port au Prince and Sochi.  One city has far too little city planning and one city had far too much!

     According to journalist Roi Tov, "With less than 350,000 denizens, [Sochi] has been occupied by at least 25,000 police officers, 30,000 soldiers, 8,000 special forces, and an undisclosed number of FSB agents."

    Port au Prince is nothing like that.  The streets go every which-way like a patchwork quilt.  But it does have one thing in common with Sochi -- abuse of its fragile labor force.  http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2014/02/07/3256191/migrant-abuse-wage-sochi-olympics/ 

     And let's also compare Port au Prince with Havana.  I'm currently reading Carlos Eire's autobiography, "Learning to Die in Miami".  Eire appears to believe with all his heart that the Castro experience was a nightmare -- and yet just compare Cuba and Haiti today.  Haiti has been under the thumb of American and European corporatists for ages and ages.  And now, despite all its amazingly fertile soil and impressive mineral riches, Haiti is currently one of the poorest countries in the world.  Seven out of ten Haitians live on less than $2 a day, according to the International Red Cross.  http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/world/poorest-countries-in-the-world/19/ 

     But in Havana under the Castro brothers, everyone has a good chance of getting a college education. 

     But, hell, most Haitians are lucky to have a chance to even get as far as fourth grade!

     If Fulgencio Batista and the American corporatists who owned him back in 1959 had remained in power and Castro had never taken over Cuba, Cuba today would more than likely look just like Haiti today.  And does anyone with a working brain really think that having American and European oil companies, bankers, war profiteers and neo-cons in control in Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine are going to help those countries either?  Hell, just look at what those guys did to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya -- and to Detroit!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq-ZmatOlvs&feature=share

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