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Back in Haiti

Casey, the indespensible Franz, and Jean Rony in Jean's workshop discussing new design ideas.

Casey, the indespensible Franz, and Jean Rony in Jean’s workshop discussing new design ideas.

Casey just got back from a week in Haiti.  It was an eventful trip!  As always, she was glad to see and have the opportunity to work with the artists again.  The creative juices continue to flow as they were able to hammer out (HA!  Pun intended.) and nail down (Oh stop!) many new designs to deliver in the coming months.

She was so delighted to observe many changes in Croix-des-Bouquet itself.  For nearly 20 years, she has been traipsing up and down the dirt roads of the village, going from workshop to workshop along the main drag.  But no longer – the road is paved.  And lined with streetlights! There is even a large sculptured metal statue signifying the major activity of Croix-des-Bouquet, that of course being recycled metal art.  Nice!  The Haitian government has undertaken these improvements to make life more safe, secure and maybe just a little bit easier.  Hopefully, it is the first of many steps the government will take toward uplifting the lives of its people.

Having observed huge containers filled with what appeared to be plastics of all kinds

A newly paved road, one of many improvements Casey observed on her latest visit.

A newly paved road, one of many improvements Casey observed on her latest visit.

being transported for recycling, Casey speculated that perhaps it was the recycling program SRS Haiti (about which I blogged in April) in action.  A terrific program in concept, it seems in action, it is making a palpable difference.

Beyond in Port-au-Prince, the large tent cities which arose after the 2010 earthquake have disappeared.  It was hard for her to say if more permanent housing had become available; in the papers and online there

A statue on the main street of Croix-des-Bouquets proclaiming by its presence that this is the birthplace of Haitian metal art.

A statue on the main street of Croix-des-Bouquets proclaiming by its presence that this is the birthplace of Haitian metal art.

have been stories of eviction notices and small amounts of cash being doled out to tide the tent city residents over.  Guess we’d all like to believe that the tent city nightmare is over.  Maybe all of the international goodwill and all of the funding flooding in from the four corners of the world is finally paying off.  Maybe bureaucratic inertia has been overcome.  Maybe a new day has dawned for the Haitian people and a new way of life has begun.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Listening to Jazz

Announcement of the International Jazz Festival held in Haiti last month.

Announcement of the International Jazz Festival held in Haiti last month.

Hosting what has become the largest cultural event of the year, the city of Port-au-Prince grooved to the beat of eighth annual International Jazz Festival last month.  Musicians from 12 countries arrived in Haiti to perform in both free and ticketed concerts and put on workshops for aspiring Haitian vocal and instrumental artists throughout the week-long event.  The Haitian Tourism Minister, Stephanie Villedrouin, called the Festival, “…. a golden opportunity for Haiti to welcome foreign artists on its land, who can immerse themselves in our culture, and let our special vibes inspire new melodies. Haiti is a country where the arts mingle with each other in great harmony.” (To view the scope and flavor of the Festival, click here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdsNR736DWA&autoplay=1 )

In support of the event, the United States Embassy sponsored performances by the New Orleans-based  band, “Soul Rebels,” whose eight-piece brass ensemble fuses soul, jazz, funk, hip-hop, rock and pop music. Additionally, Dr. Wesley J. Watkins, an academic from the San Francisco Bay area,

presented his theories of jazz and democracy in a series of workshops to the students of Holy Trinity Music School and Catts Pressoir.  In his

Playing jazz, maybe?  Jean Joseph Son's "Boys in the Band" RND459

Playing jazz, maybe? Jean Joseph Son’s “Boys in the Band” RND459

presentations, he used jazz music as a platform for the democratic process. Haitian students and youth were shown that active listening, cooperation, peaceful negotiation and participation are essential in the creation of both jazz music and democracy.  In his view, the two are mirror images of each other.

Maybe he’s got something there. Both jazz and democracy are inherently fluid and responsive. In each, individual contribution is integral to the workings of the whole. Trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis once observed that, “Jazz music is summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come.” Similarly, democracy works – whether in the US, or Haiti, or anywhere in the world – if we constantly evolve by listening, feeling, understanding, and challenging ourselves to become better than we are.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Dreams of winning the lottery

Lottery ticket boutiques are colloquially referred to as a "banks," because they will take "investment" wagers as small as a single goude.  This "bank" is on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets.

Lottery ticket boutiques are colloquially referred to as a “banks,” because they will take “investment” wagers as small as a single goude. This “bank” is on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets.

Last month, I was in North Carolina riding in the car with my friend Laura, when we passed “her 7-11″ convenience store.  I say “her 7-11” because every Friday, without fail, she goes in and buys a lottery ticket, expectations low, but hopes high.  Striking it rich would be a good way to end the week, after all.  She pointed it out as we buzzed by and she told me, “Do you know, I have a friend that actually won a million dollars there.  He did – ONE MILLION DOLLARS!  He never goes to my 7-11, but he did that day, and he won.  I hardly think that’s fair, do you?”  She laughs, “I actually kind of feel like he won MY million dollars, though I do try to be nice about it.”

So who among us has not fantasized about winning the lottery? Wouldn’t it be great?  Think of the possibilities, even after taxes! (Laura’s friend got $600K after the State of North Carolina took its cut.)  Hope springs eternal the world over and Haitians are no different from the rest of us in their love affair with the possible.  The dream persists – without regard for likelihood – that Lady Luck will smile, a jackpot will be won and luxury, comfort, and leisure will be delivered forthwith.

In Haiti, however, the dream seems somehow more desperate.  It is estimated that Haitians spend between $1.5- 2 billion on the lottery every year, amounting to nearly one-quarter of the impoverished country’s GNP, and it is the Haitian poor that “invest” the most heavily.  Starting at 1 goude/3 cents per number, it is often the only “investment” they can afford. However, because the Haitian State does not tax pay-offs, there is no tax revenue to put into state projects, such as infrastructure and educational development.  Thus, when a Haitian player loses, he really loses.  His goude is for naught.

Each lottery ticket comes with a set of three two-digit numbers.  The idea is to choose one, two, or all three numbers correctly, with the pay-off being 50-1 for the first number, 20-1 for the second, and 10-1 for the third. Rather than approaching the lottery as a game of chance, however, Haitians employ a rather complicated strategy of dream interpretation to increase their odds of winning.  Though the success rate is dubious, the reasoning flows somewhat logically.  If the ultimate dream is to win the lottery, then one’s nightly dreams, correctly interpreted, will point the way.

In accordance with this method, elements in a dream such as a child or a chair or a feather, or whatever, all

It is estimated that there are 200,000 lottery boutiques in Port-au-Prince alone.

It is estimated that there are 200,000 lottery boutiques in Port-au-Prince alone.

correspond to a specific number.  These numeric correlations are all documented in a book – available at every single borlette (Kreyol for lottery boutique) worth its salt – known as “tchala.” So, for example, if one observes a red feather prominently in a dream, one simply looks up the number assigned to red feathers in the tchala and there it is.  The first wager thus becomes clear.

To the casual observer, this dream interpretation strategy may not seem like it would make much difference to whatever lottery gods there be. Perhaps, though winning isn’t entirely the point.  As Pooja Bhatia put it so elegantly in her April 2010 article for myAiti.com, “The borlette allows Haitians to feel as though their dreams and ideas matter.  As long as they dream, they will play.”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

For your reading pleasure and personal edification: “State”

A new book by Robert Arnaud and Paolo Woods reviewing the meaning of "State" as it applies - and doesn't in Haiti.

A new book by Robert Arnaud and Paolo Woods reviewing the meaning of “State” as it applies – and doesn’t in Haiti.

A new book by Arnaud Robert and Paolo Woods entitled, “State” was released in France in September and just this week has become available for pre-order on Amazon. It has been generating a good deal of attention both here and abroad for its examination of the national identity forged in Haiti in spite of the State.  Through photos and text, Robert and Woods show how the country of Haiti is actually held together by resistance, humor, creation and culture.  It articulates a nation in the absence of State.

Their choice of Haiti as a subject was hardly a good one from the perspective of news. Photo editors complained that they had had their fill of images depicting the ravages of the earthquake and the cholera epidemic that swept the country. Misery reporting overload obliged Woods and Robert to stay away from the photo stories that had typically come out of the island. Working on pieces for a variety of European and American publications from a new location and a new perspective, they based themselves in Les Cayes and thereby escaped the usual tug of the news cycle in Port-au-Prince. In so doing, they were able to delve into several topics of great importance that had been largely overlooked.

Among the many aspects of Haitian life that they took on, the one that has generated the most controversy is also perhaps the most intriguing. Woods and Robert spent a great deal of time with Haiti’s moneyed elite. On the instituteartist website, (Click here to view: http://www.instituteartist.com/) Woods is quoted as saying, “The country’s top-tier wealthy citizens have been denounced as corrupt profiteers, but I have a strong respect for them.  They are entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes here and could have easily taken their money and moved to Miami to lead very comfortable lives.  But to stay, to live and work in Haiti is not easy.  You have to love your country enormously to do that.”  In fact, he points out, the top 500 taxpayers in Haiti represent 1% of the population, yet account for 80% of their tax revenues. (How’s that for a tax burden?) Woods believes that wealthy individuals may well represent the winds of change for Haiti; change for the better that outsiders have tried and failed to accomplish.  Perhaps outrageous, and definitely inflammatory, it’s an opinion that bears consideration. Change born from within instead of imposed from without. It might be the change that succeeds.

“State.”  Buy it or borrow it, and then read it. At least look at the pictures and see what you think.  (I feel another book club coming on…)

One of a kind "Reading Angel." by Edward Dieudonne

One of a kind “Reading Angel.” by Edward Dieudonne

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Starting the day with coffee from Haiti


Taking care of the coffee crop. Haitian Farmer One-of-a-Kind Sculpture ID# HT1516

Taking care of the coffee crop. Haitian Farmer One-of-a-Kind Sculpture ID# HT1516

As my family will attest, coffee starts my day.  I need it – they need me to have it.  The day just goes better if I’ve paddled out to the kitchen in my jammies and headed straightaway to the stove to make and subsequently drink a cuppa Joe.  Yes, I still do this the old-fashioned way.  No high-tech Keurig for me, though I do admit it has its appeal and my eye has strayed from time to time. I make my coffee in a French press.  No muss, no fuss, I can do it in my sleep and in fact, that’s probably the way it happens most of the time.  So the last time I was in Haiti, I left with a few vacuum-sealed packages of local Rebo  Deluxe Coffee in my carry-on bag.  Good souvenir, I thought with a fair amount of satisfaction.  No chance of languishing in obscurity on some dark shelf.  I would drink and enjoy it to the last drop.

And now, I am out, which of course made me think about getting some more.  So where does one buy Haitian coffee in the US?

Once upon a time, Haitian coffee was plentiful worldwide.  During the French Colonial period, Haiti was the second largest coffee producing country on the planet and it was in the top three until as late as 1949. Dictators and trade embargoes did the coffee planters no favors and in fact, coffee production nearly died out entirely by the late 1980’s. Verdant acres of coffee trees were abandoned on the mountainsides, left to grow wild or die trying.

Fast-forward to post-quake Haiti and there has been renewed interest in reviving coffee production as a means of re-building the agricultural sector.  The Rebo company is in the process of expanding its export market, primarily to Haitians of the Diaspora, while at least a handful of importers are buying coffee from  Haitian farmers and co-ops under Fair Trade/Direct Trade agreements for roasting and selling in the US and Canada.  Haitian coffee is thus available to me, right here, right now – I can buy it online!

Ready to brew!

Ready to brew!

Thus, I shall order up.  From www.kafepanou.com I will get a bag of Rebo “Gourmet,” which is an arabica typica varietal.  From www.lacolombe.com I will get “Mare Blanche,” also arabica typica.  And from  www.williams-sonoma.com I COULD order “Lyon,” but it is cheaper to order it from La Colombe, since THEY sell it to Williams-Sonoma, OR just run up the street to W-S and pick it up myself, which I will do and at least save the shipping. “Lyon” is a blend of Peruvian, Brazilian, and Ethiopian, coffee beans along with Haitian blue forest semi-wild, heirloom beans.  And a portion of my purchase of “Lyon” goes to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is an environmental preservation organization, so isn’t that nice? I’m gonna stop writing now and go buy some coffee.  Shall we have a tasting?  Oh, I think so!


To be continued…

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus


The Grandes Dames of Port-au-Prince

Architectural detail – The Kinam Hotel

In Haiti at the end of our first day, when we’d ridden back into Port-au-Prince and I’d sponged off most of the village sweat and grime that I’d accumulated over the past several hours, I sat in the courtyard of our hotel, cold beer in hand, and realized that I was being quietly seduced by the charm of the gingerbread architecture surrounding me.

The Kinam Hotel where we were staying is one of Port-au-Prince’s grandes dames of Victorian-style gingerbread architecture in the city.  Miraculously, of the nearly 200 gingerbreads in Port-au-Prince before the 2010 earthquake, nearly all survived.  Their wooden frames and structure had the just enough “give” to withstand the tremors, whereas rigid rebar and concrete buildings crumbled, 40 percent of the total being reduced to rubble. Having withstood the ravages of time and weather for over 100 years, what was a little 30 second rumble?

Gingerbread Victorian homes became popular in Haiti in the latter part of the 19th century.  Native born, Parisian educated architects returned to their Caribbean homeland and plied their trade with relish.  The style was florid, communicating the good life.  Painted in vibrant tropical hues, they nonetheless had their practical elements. High ceilings and turreted roofs directed hot air above the inhabitable space, windows on all sides created a cool cross-breeze even during seasonal stretches of blistering heat, and the frame’s tractability enabled them to weather powerful storms. The only drawback was their combustibility.  Fires ravaged the city of Port-au-Prince not infrequently, and the gingerbreads added a great deal of fuel to the flame.  So much so in fact, that in 1910, new construction of gingerbreads came to be forbidden by mayoral decree.

Another gingerbread gem

In the ensuing years, the gingerbreads remained an iconic symbol of gracious living and were treasured by tourists and the local populace alike.  However, as the economy faltered and the Haitian diaspora came into full swing, those with knowledge of gingerbread construction took it with them, leaving a void in the ability to keep them maintained and viable.  Complicating matters further was the diminishing supply of hardwood material leaving little with which to repair them. Consequently, the lovely gingerbreads of a bygone era are falling apart, collapsing not by a single catastrophe, but bit by bit, plank by shingle.

There is a movement afoot to preserve the remaining grand dames.  Ironically, three months before the

How about this grande dame? RND 383 by Charles Luthene

2010 earthquake, the gingerbreads were put on a “watch list” of the World Monument Fund.  This guarantees the interest in and support for their restoration by the global community.  Several

Haitian heavy-hitters have also rallied to the cause, among them the former president, Michele Pierre-Louis and Jean-Julien Olson, the former cultural minister.  In the gingerbreads they see potential for restoration not only of their beautiful forms, but of the national cultural history they represent.  Backing by the current Haitian government, in the form of legislation blocking demolition, is unfortunately, yet to be enacted.

(Go to the website below and click on the video for further insight)


Still, there is hope.  Says Olson, “These old homes are a reflection of the Haitian people.  Just look how they stand facing the street. They provide space for people to meet and greet each other. That’s the way our society works.  We need to remember that. We talk about building back better, but the whole key to that success is to remember our past.”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/Its Cactus

A Trip to Haiti

Though I can’t say I’ve been anything close to EVERYWHERE, I am fairly well travelled.  Travel for me is almost like breathing – I need to do it.  Every issue of National Geographic, every vacation brochure in the mail, every song on the radio with an exotic beat compels me to think about my next trip.  I’ve lived in eight different states and four different countries; I have been fortunate to visit many more.  Still, for all of my presumed “worldliness” there is nothing quite like Haiti.

In fact, I just returned from a five-day foray less than 48 hours ago.  My mind still reels with sensory overload.  Haiti is a place you feel on your skin, dust and grit and grime and sweat, but also balmy mountain air, soft rains, and the caressing warmth of  morning sunshine.  It’s noisy and chaotic and damned uncomfortable one minute and beautiful in its simplicity the next.  It’s sexual violence in tent cities and open-air churches packed with the faithful, their voices raised in hymns of hope and praise.  It’s gorgeous wildflowers blooming on the side of the road and a frog coming out of the bathtub faucet.  To be honest, this is my third trip, and it’s still a pretty good challenge just to process it all.

Do I like going there?  Well, yes and no.  Reading about the poverty and desperation is one thing.   Seeing dirty, barefoot little kids with lice in their hair plinking rocks in the open sewer running in front of their house because they’ve got nothing else to play with is something else again. But then, you enter the shop doorway of one of our artists and you get a radiant smile and a great big hug and a whiff of Palmolive soap and find a tall cool bottle of Coca-Cola thrust in your hand before you can say, “Jack Robinson.” And then they bring out amazing pieces of art.  Their latest creations, wrought with such delicacy and brilliant craftsmanship and you can’t help wondering, “Where does this all come from?”

Where does it all come from?  The smile in the face of hardship, the cool soft drink in the house with no refrigerator and the fantastic art in the hard-scrabble village.  It’s a pretty good question – one that overrides aversion, inconvenience and discomfort.  I want to know where that goodness and joy and strength of human spirit comes from.  In Haiti, I feel like I’m close to the answer.  And that will keep me gladly coming back.

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