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State Dept. Advises Caution When Driving in Haiti

Women headed to market walking in the middle of the street where the sidewalks are too narrow.

Women headed to market walk in the middle of the street where the sidewalks are too narrow.

Planning a trip to Haiti is fun and exciting, but it is always a good idea to have a feel for what you are getting yourself into. Having just consulted the State Department website on Haiti, I am happy to report that the current advisories don’t offer up anything much that is new or alarming. Status quo, you might say. Maybe it is my anticipatory mood, though, that makes me think their admonishments of caution are actually kind of funny.Take for example:

“In addition to vehicles, a variety of other objects may appear on the road in Haiti, such as wooden carts dragged by people or animals, small ice cream carts, animals, mechanics working on vehicles parked on the street, and vendors and their wares.”

Ya think? Then there was this gem:

“Driving in Haiti must be undertaken with extreme caution. Traffic is usually chaotic; those with no knowledge of Haitian roads and traffic

Goats running along the road across from the US Embassy. Guess you could call it "local color."

Goats running along the road across from the US Embassy. Guess you could call it “local color.”

customs should hire a driver through a local tour operator or hotel. Roads are generally unmarked and detailed and accurate maps are not widely available. Lanes are not marked and signs indicating the direction of traffic flow seldom exist. Huge potholes may cause drivers to execute unpredictable and dangerous maneuvers in heavy traffic.”

Been there, seen that! In one of the more remarkable examples of potholes burned in my brain, I am pretty sure you could have lost a four-year old for good. Roadway hazard doesn’t quite describe it accurately. Yawning bottomless chasm is much closer.

And finally:

“Signaling imminent actions is not widely practiced and not all drivers use turn indicators or international hand signals properly. For instance, many drivers use their left blinker for all actions, including right turns and stops. Non-standard and non-intuitive hand signals are used to indicate a variety of actions. Drivers do not always verify that the road is clear before switching lanes, turning, or merging. When making a left-hand turn, drivers should be aware that traffic may pass on the left while they are attempting to turn. This is legal in Haiti.”

All of which makes me thank my lucky stars that we have Franz. His skill as a driver is beyond compare and he proves it every single time we

Meet Franz, our eternally patient, extraordinarily skilled driver and friend. He is worth his weight in gold.

Meet Franz, our eternally patient, extraordinarily skilled driver and friend. He is worth his weight in gold.

get in his van. Truly a he is heaven-sent; he is able to negotiate all of the above and more with infinite patience and finess. I actually think he could even make the State Department relax. Now THAT is a gift.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Bringing Haiti Home

Mary Ragsdale will film video for itscactus

Meet Mary Ragsdale, who will be helping us bring Haiti home to you.

We’ve got an exciting few days ahead – another buying trip to Haiti! But this time, we are fortunate to have an additional intrepid traveller with us. Along with Casey and her mom Gigi and I, Mary Ragsdale will be joining us. And Mary’s got skills. I personally regard them as superpowers, for SHE does video….

Everybody knows that video tells a story that simple photos cannot. With Mary behind the camera, we will be able to share with you so much more of the Haitian experience than we’ve ever been able to before. We’ve had the “Visit Haiti” segment on our website for quite some time but now we’ll elevate the whole production, with a start-to-finish clip on how Haitian metal sculpture is made.

You will also see scenes of of Croix-des-Bouquets and daily life. We’ll do a video piece on pumping water and the women who head carry it back

Video will help bring the Haiti we love home.

Video will be another way for you to meet our artists and their families.

to their homes for washing, drinking and cooking. In a voodoo temple, we’ll take viewers on a “nickel tour” and interview practitioners on some of their rituals and observances. Another piece we’ve got in mind is on voodoo flags, how they are made and how they are sold on the “Voodoo Tree.” All in all, the newly shot videos will enable us to share our experiences and provide a glimpse into the lives and work of our artists and their families in Haiti.

It’s a pretty heady prospect! It is so helpful for people understand the art that they buy, where it comes from, what it takes to create it, and how their purchases helps the artists who produce it. Understanding takes the enthusiasm level from “I like it,” to “I love it!” And that’s just what we llke to hear!


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

A Poet’s Vision of Croix-des-Bouquets

IMG_6339 (640x640)

While doing some research online, I stumbled across a poem entitled “Ode to Croix-des-Bouquets” on a website coincidentally called, “Beyond Borders.” This is not the wholesale Haitian metal art company owned by Janet and Joel Ross, but a charitable organization in Washington, D.C. that is working in Haiti to end child slavery. (They are beyondborders.net, while Janet and Joel are beyondbordersfairtrade.com) The author of the poem, Marcus Ellsworth of Chattanooga, TN, visited Haiti as part of an artist’s pilgrimage a couple of years ago. While in Haiti, the group ventured out to Croix-des-Bouquet and Ellsworth was moved to jot down his impressions in verse. So instead of writing my usual blog, I thought sharing his poem with you would be a pleasant change of pace. His evocative words quickly bring me back to Haiti in my mind….


“Ode to Croix-des-Bouquets”  By Marcus Ellsworth

There are secrets one can only revealIMG_6427 (640x640)
with a hammer, a chisel, and skill.

Kneeling at the edge of the steel sheet,
like a fisherman in his boat
on deep still waters
breaking the surface
to catch the truth of the heart
and bring it up into the sun.

IMG_6348 (640x640)Hammers pounding as thunder
Chisels falling as rain
Hands summoning patient storms
that awaken life
from the quiet metal

Angels come to dance
Flowers bloom immortal
Spirits gather
to laugh, and rage, and teach,
IMG_6180 (640x640)and be made solid for our eyes and hands

Such is the gift of steel and those who mold it like clay
Listen to the sounds of Croix Des Bouquets
This is the sound of dreamers bending the world to their will.


Contributed by Linda for 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

The Art of Michee Remy Lives On

Angels by Michee Remy

Angels by Michee Remy

Two years ago, one of the most highly acclaimed active metal sculptors in Haiti died at the age of 41.  Michee Ramil Remy began his artistic career at the age of 14 in the workshop of his stepfather, master craftsman Gabriel Bien-Aime.  Over the next 28 years, he honed a distinctive style and level of expertise that generated international awards and accolades. From the first invitation to participate in the Haitian National Arts Exhibition in 1993 to attending the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival as a guest artist the following year, Michee’s talent became widely recognized.  He was on the radar; busy and with an ever-growing demand for his work.

His association with Beyond Borders extends back to the mid-nineties.  For fifteen years, we purchased and carried Michee’s work consistently, though almost always as one-of-a kinds. Throughout that time, he collaborated with Beyond Borders on only two catalogue pieces, preferring instead to produce single pieces of his art.  It was a decision that founder Casey Riddell to this day acknowledges was for the best.  “Some artists should never go into production.  Their work is pure. It is uniquely their own and should stay that way.  Michee is one of those artists.”

Fast-forward to 2009:  Michee’s participation in the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe attracted the attention of the Clinton

At Michee's workshop in Croix-des-Bouquet

At Michee’s workshop in Croix-des-Bouquets

Global Initiative.  He, along with Serge Jolimeau, another Haitian metal artist of distinction and Toyin Folorunso, a skilled metal artist from Nigeria, were commissioned to create sculptural awards for the Clinton Global Initiative’s Global Citizen honorees. Said Robert S. Harrison,  Chief Executive officer of the CGI, “These men are not only talented artists, but they have become leading social entrepreneurs – creating jobs, invigorating the art community and training new generations of artists to pass along their traditions.” This selection brought further opportunity, in the form of a joint exhibition for Michee and Serge, originating at the North Miami Museum of Art and travelling on to the Clinton Presidential Library, where it was featured for several weeks.

In March of 2011, it all came to an abrupt end.  Michee had battled numerous health issues for years; it was a battle he was not to win. Beyond Borders is both proud and fortunate to carry many of his remaining works.  In them, the memory and creative genius of Michee Ramil Remy live on.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

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