Carnival

For many years, I had missed the carnival period here in Haiti because I always had to go back to my university for the semester. Burying my nose in books for the semester while fantasising about the colours, the lights, and the sounds of carnival my mother would tell me about over the phone. However, now since moving here a few months ago, finally I am able to be part of one of the critical events in Haitian culture. Carnival.

It happens annually over a six week period through mid-January and into February, in the major cities all over Haiti like Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Cap Haitien and others all over the country. From what I have heard all around, the carnival in Jacmel is the best and people actually leave the capital to go and watch it in swarms, swirling and buzzing with the lyrical fever that comes around this time of year. A few days ago, while walking through the sweltering heat and maze of streets in Petion-ville, I was actually stopped by a local to ask if I was participating in the carnival…he speaks to me in Kreyol casually as they all usually do – seeing no foreignness in me. I have the brown skin of his mother, of his sisters, of every woman he’s ever known – I belong here, even without having been born here. Simply because we are tied by the blood of our motherland, simply because Africa never left us. For whatever reason however, no matter where I go I always manage to stick out like a sore thumb, bruised and red – shining bright enough to catch startled eyes – unique. Haiti is no different, and with my wild copper mess of braids I suppose I am even more difficult to miss at this point.

At the time when I was approached, I had no idea that many women traditionally braid their hair crazy colours and so my current hairdo was perceived as me getting lost in the carnival spirit. Unwilling to disappoint the man by letting him know that this way just my regular level of ostentaciousness, I nodded and replied in my meager kreyol that I would most certainly be participating in the Jacmel carnival. When I finally saw it on television at Cafe 36 (a tasteful, tranquil restaurant near the Irish Village in Petion-ville which I plan to adopt), I certainly wished that I was going to be a part of it. The faces on the television in front of me were live with colour and excitement, statues made out of paper mache depicting Haitian celebrities, legendary figures, and spiritual entities from both Christianity and Vodou dance over the heads of the people in the parade. While we sat at the restaurant, various bands walked by on foot playing their instruments and followed by small crowds. We watched them from above, and I wondered about the way the parade would be when it eventually started at seven. I was told that the parade in Port-au-Prince was far more lively than the one in Petion-ville, and yet the one in Petion-ville was the most dangerous due to people’s propensity to breakout into lewd and drunken fights. I was not discouraged though, from traveling so much I have learned to take people’s opinions about events and places with a pinch of salt – shrewdly judging everything for myself. Not because I don’t think people know what they’re saying, but because I believe a lot of people allow their fears to sway their opinions of things and I don’t want to be swayed by anyone’s fears – even my own.

When we finally make it to the carnival around nine that night, it is in full swing…crowds gather outside the small junction by Muncheez and the Royal Oasis. Earlier, I had seen young boys who are notorious for roller-blading at death-defying speeds down the streets of the city performing for crowds in red t-shirts. A lot of companies sponsor the carnival, including Rhum Barbancourt which you can see being sold by energetic street sellers who have stubbornly set up their stalls in the midst of the excited crowds. Women everywhere are daring in their clothing, vibrant and neon colours all around, necks adorned with shiny plastic beads and electronic earrings. Smart phones staring into the eyes of their owners, light and sound bathing the crowd and letting you forget the rubbish littering the streets below their feet. Darkness over us, the envious lights of Jalousie glinting down at us and our fevered shouts over the carnival music.

Everyone seems to be paired up, women dancing unabashedly against their men (plump bottoms and thighs jingling salaciously, flesh overloading)….a hand in the air, the other bringing the bottle of Prestige to their lips. Hair jostling from bobbing heads, eyes staring all around looking for the next act of entertainment, and weary for the next fight. And there are fights. Fights that move the crowd as two men shove each other, throwing punches, inciting the others around them. A man pushes a young woman as he passes through the crowd, she shoves him back hard enough for him to sway…he raises his hand in defense, her friends behind her jeer daring him to try. He keeps it moving. Whomever said Haitian women were docile and servile obviously has never witnessed their fighting spirit, their gall, their brazen splendour. My eyes dart around, greedily gobbling in everything in – frightened and yet excited! I am held tightly to one side by a loved one, constantly pushed in passing, eyes passing over me in assessment and all the while music. Music booming over us in the passing trunks, music booming through speakers on high diases, music coming through cells and out of pores. Music. Dance. Sweat. Sex. All wringing into the scent of the night around us, all going up into the sky.

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Rustik

The reason why I was so incredibly fascinated with the restaurant ‘Rustik’ was because of its clever use of recycled materials as part of the decorative materials that were sprawled out all over the restaurant. After an hour drive up into the mountains of Port-au-Prince, you understand exactly why you bothered to come all the way up here. The views from the restaurant are straight out of a glossy catalogue, clouds hanging so low that they seemed to be on ground level. They sit comfortably hiding the peaks of the mountains like old hats, and its not hard to be convinced that their whispering secrets into the mountains below them. The restaurant is surrounded by plunging cliffs,  covered in greenery like bamboo and pine trees, various grasses, and small plots where people dare to farm.The road to is at some points so narrow that only one care can pass by at a time for fear of plunging off the road into the sheer, merciless mountain sides that promise death. The mountains of the city are not separated, they seem to form who clusters of towering heights that loom above the city on which they are built and loom off into the horizon as far as the eye can see.

On the way up to Rustik, you pass the usual throng of vibrant people on motos and tap taps, walking and laughing to the endless stream of jokes you’ll never hear. Beautiful Haitian girls carrying all manner of items for sale on their heads, like their ancestors all over the motherland, or dressed to the nines with their hair carefully styled for an exciting date or just a casual community party.You pass Boutillie, and Thomassin and continue up and up through the winding roads, at some point even the tap taps can no longer pass and you’re left with either pedestrians or the ever defiant moto drivers. The moto has really become a godsend for people who live up in these heights, there is no other form of public transportation for people that high up. Three men pass us on a moto, they look curiously in at me looking curiously out at them and all three faces light up. The air is cool, crisp and the epitome of freshness. I understand why mountains were always viewed to be the homes of spirits, of many global pantheons of gods, they are magical places whose secrets never seem to truly unveil themselves. You wonder what could be hiding in the quiet sigh of each tree, and the flickering shadows that they seem to cast upon the ground. Occasionally, you see a goat, a pig or even a horse casually wondering around or tied in place by a cautious owner. A lot the livestock seen about the city is owned by someone who isn’t usually very far away from the animal.

Rustik features round tables made of the tops of alcohol barrels, surrounded by crafty, wooden blue chairs that remind me of the chairs you sometimes see in children’s playsets. The ceiling itself is made of more of these barrel tops, and the balconies are decorated with rubber birds of paradise made out of old tires. There is an amour made of stacked up beer bottles at the far end out the restuarant, and the chandeliers are all made of various brightly coloured beer bottles. The restaurant itself is dimly lit, and the deck is made of old wooden planks laid on the floor, so are the railings surrounding it. The owners seem to live in the back of the restaurant, and after a little poking about I discover that there is a tiny cabin detached from the rest of the restaurant which guests can rent out should they wish to stay up here for a night or two. Its a little thatched hut that seems to hang precariously over a small slope, but the views are gorgeous and even the toilets are unique – built into the rock of the surrounding area so you literally feel as though you’re outside. There’s an amusing piece of graffiti art on one of the restaurant walls of magic mushrooms, and a band of musicians with guitars and drums play away in the center of the restaurant. They seem at home, so I figure they either frequent Rustik often or live in the area. 

What I find to be most interesting in terms of the interior design of the place is a curling staircase made of wood and overturned beer bottles, its not too uncomfortable to walk on either and me and my sister give it a try just for fun before we go. The waiters at the restaurant wear bright red t-shirts with the word ‘Rustik’ on the front in a curly yellow font, and they vhttps://wordpress.com/post/71457985/newary in their levels of experience and customer service. I find it incredibly amusing to be here in Haiti eating pepperoni pizza, and listening to Beyonce’s ‘Drunk in Love’ blaring lazily from the overhead speakers. My sister makes funny faces at me, and we sit and enjoy the breeze and the wonderful variety of greenery that surrounds us.

Mawu seems to have come through here, birthing all the beauty of the earth into this one place…high up amongst the clouds that meander shyly through the trees in front of us.

Croix-de-Bouquets

I was shocked to discover that even some Haitians do not know about this gem of art and talent within the beautiful city that is Port-au-Prince. A place where an entire neighbourhood of families has turned metal work into an art form, I am informed that within these families – down to the youngest child – the craft of metal art is taught. Through spending hours watching their parents, sisters and brothers, cousins and uncles drawing out chalk outlines on metal before taking the time to cut out the designs. To produce pieces en-masse for exportation, the same parts of each piece are created and a group of various artists assemble the pieces. The art is featured at exhibitions here in the capital city, but it is also exported into American markets where it then finds global exposure. Croix-de-Bouquets is at least an hour drive away from where I live near Petion-ville, and if you’re not careful where you’re going, you can easily miss the neighbourhood entirely because it is not exactly marked. Mum actually drove past it at one point, and I was feeling my stomach begin to turn because of spending too much time in the car on too little to eat.

You can imagine my relief when we finally found the place, I was so happy that I immediately dashed out of the car, embracing the chance to still my complaining tummy with some fresh air. The people who live in this neighbourhood are extremely simple, like a lot of locals within this city. Even though they have art that is renowned nationwide, there is not a single snob amoungst them. They regard my small family with curiosity as I take out my camera and begin to photograph all the splendid pieces of art around me. I set my eyes first on a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Regla that towers over the tiny houses and meandering streets beneath her, she smiles out at us as if to assure us that we made it to the right place. I immediately break out in a grin.

There were five huge multi-coloured lizards on the wall opposite me, the stores were not only selling metal artwork but they were also decorated with it. Everything about Haiti is novel to me, I can’t say that I ever fail to be amazed by the very things that Haitians find to be commonplace. I am not entirely sure if that’s because everything here is novel to me, or simply because it is hard not be infused with a sense of wonder at the talent running through this country. The shops we go into are small, and not very well lit but the pieces of metal art add a spark of bedazzlement to their unassuming surroundings. 

A common theme in Haiti for painters, and other types of artists is the idea of the Sun. Everywhere you go, you see various renditions of artwork depicting a smiling sun – often alone – but sometimes with a protective moon embracing it. There are also common depictions of a duplicitous sun, with both a dark side and a light side. There was no lack of these in the various shops here at Croix-de-Bouquets, in rainbow colours and shapes and sizes, some even much bigger than my own head protected from dust and wear by plastic covering. In the first shop we walk into I am immediately captured by a melusine on the wall in the corner that is supposed to be Mami Wata, a West African spirit patronised in Vodoun here in Haiti, most of the Caribbean, South America and southern parts of the United States by the black community. Vodoun is often villainous to those who do not understand it, foreigners even had the gall and sheer ignorance to blame it for the 2010 earthquake. However, it is a religion of a kind nature that seeks spiritual well being, and communication with the ancestors. Mami Wata is half-woman, half serpent with long kinky black hair who is sometimes depicted as a beautiful woman with a serpent between her breasts. The serpent in traditional African religions is seen as a symbol of divinity who can often help one communicate with the ancestors. Her name means mother of the water, and she is associated with many things including wealth, fidelity, spiritual awareness, fertility, healing, and nature. Her presence here in this village of metal artists is a reflection of the strong spiritual ties that Haiti has maintained with Africa and its ancestors. Another powerful reason why I feel so cemented to this place, due to our shared beliefs, it is not uncommon to hear Africans who come to Haiti say they feel as though they haven’t left the continent.

Another common theme for the metal artists is Yemaja, who is known here in Haitian Vodoun as LaSiren or Our Lady of Regla. Yemaja is a Nigerian Orisha known as the mother of all living things, of all fifteen Orishas, and owner of all the waters. Yemaja and Mami Wata are often mistaken to be identical but they are in fact separate entities. Yemaja is also associated with motherhood, and as a protector of children and her name means “mother whose children are like fish” in Yoruba. She is depicted here in Haiti either as a single/double-tailed mermaid, or the Black Madonna with child. The water spirit theme is incredibly powerful here in Haitian Vodoun, and this can be seen in the other metal pieces of mermaid families with a man, woman and child singing songs and drumming under the sea. Trees are also another strongly featured subject here in  Croix-de-Bouquets and the artists explain that this is because there is a common Vodoun belief in the idea that spirits live within trees. The artists here also are great craftsmen of mirrors, huge metal-gilded mirrors that dwarf me decorated with various intricate designs. I am immediately pulled into a fantasy of how I’m going to decorate my future home with all these beautiful, powerfully spiritual things and a feeling of utter peace sweeps through me.

Two particular pieces capture my attention the most, one of them being a really intricately embroidered chair created by one of the artists whose main focus is creating glorious mirrors. To the artist, its his everyday chair that he sits on while having his spaghetti for breakfast in the morning, but to me – it is an eternal inspiration for the future objects that will furnish my home. My sister and I sit in it for a couple of pictures, and it is even more comfortable than you would think it is. I can imagine myself watching many-a-day go by in that chair, with a book and the city beneath me high up in the mountains of Port-au-Prince. The other piece which I find particularly beautiful is a metal carving of LaSiren singing a song, with a spiraling tail at whose end is a smiling and golden Sun. This piece, I endeavor to return for in order to keep it in my room. I don’t know if you have picked this up yet, but not only are my spiritual beliefs unconventional….but I am incredibly drawn to water spirits in all their forms.

As you’ve probably gauged, Croix-de-Bouquets is not somewhere where you come with no money in your pocket because you just are in pain over all the beautiful things you have to leave behind. Before we leave, my mother buys me a golden tree and gets herself a little Sun carving for her bedroom door, we make promise after promise to return and I have no doubt we will. I leave feeling inspired, and in awe of the artists we’ve been so privileged to spend the afternoon with. In my mind’s eye, I see a little siren waving goodbye to me with a smiling sun glistening at the end of her tail.

Haiti Cherie, my heart is yours. 

Tap Tap

This is the term used to refer to a form of public transportation used here in Port-au-Prince by much of the local population, myself included. Unlike motos which are little, heavily decorated (sometimes) motorcycles that seem to have replaced the idea of a taxi, the tap tap is usually a Toyota pick-up truck with a roof that functions a lot like the bus in other places. Tap taps have designated routes, the ones I most commonly use are the Route de Frere route, and the route that goes to Petion-ville city center where most of the tap taps uptown congregate to switch drivers, and restart their routes. To get into the tap tap, you climb into the back of the truck which is open with groups of up to fifteen people, and find some space in which to squeeze yourself there. That’s what I had to do this past Friday as I went on an excursion with a family relative, I crossed my legs in order to take up as little space as possible and could feel the woman next to me turn and put her hand on my knee in thanks. A person opposite me is on the phone, while the other one munches on some ground nuts. Tap taps usually have windows, but as with most things in Haiti, that doesn’t exactly offer any relief from the heat so every person has a fine coating of sweat and dust on their skin after a little while. 

They are incredibly colourful, covered in patterns, religious ephithets, Vodun symbols, and even some paintings. Often there’s music being played, as is the usual spirit of this city, but it is usually low enough so that the driver can hear when someone says that they want to get down. In order to do this, when you feel that you have reached your destination you shout out “Merci” and the driver finds a convenient place to stop nearest to your desired location on the side of the street. What I always found incredibly interesting was the fact that people pay after they have reached their destination. You come around to the front and pay for your ride unlike in places like Kenya where you pay for the matatu before or during the ride. I was informed that should you try not to – you’ll be accused of theivery and the public shaming is something most people try to avoid. Understandably, I don’t think anyone really thrives on humiliation. However I think its a reflection of the practice of honesty in the Haitian culture, in that the driver trusts people enough not to try and sneak off without paying. Usually once throughout the ride, the driver will come out back and collect the fee from every person seated in the back of the vehicle before carrying on. 

Upon reaching the tap tap station near the market in Petion-ville, we are instantly swept into a hive of people and have to hold hands to keep from losing each other. Everyone stares at me, and I stare back, before we all move onto the next thing that catches our eye in the burgeoning market. Indeed, there is so much to look at! Vendors of all sorts selling fruit, vegetables and raw meat on the side of the road in the afternoon sun. Boys running, girls laughing and chatting, moto drivers yelling across the street at each other. Most without any shelter from the sweltering sun, sweat is running down my face within moments as we weave through people and tap taps all packed into one space like finely packed sardines. Litter is a problem in these areas due to the nonavailability of bins, and the streets are filled with used water sachets from various companies like Aqua Fina, Alaska, Kanskad. A man on the side of the road with a microphone is conducting a random chorus of singing people, we pass by to hurriedly for me to figure out the nature of their song but as far as I can tell – their voices are heavenly. Another blessing of the people here, so many of them have the gift of song, I remember my brother once making a note that you were never lacking in a beautiful voice to listen to.

I ask a moto driver if I can take a picture of his elaborately decorated bike, all Haitian colours and chrome piping and the group of them laugh at me. It occurs to me that once something has become familiar to you, it takes an outside to come in and see the uniqueness of the different facets of your culture.

Strangely enough, as an outsider, I’ve never felt more immersed!

Reality and Dreams

From today, my mornings are going to be spent at the stables inhaling the fresh scent of hay and the horses’ manes. Mum drops me off, my jodhpurs begin the morning a spotless white, but even I am not naive enough to believe that’s going to last. I’m careful putting on my boots, they have been sitting in the tack room for a while and I was semi-terrified that some poisonous spider has crawled up in there. I calmed myself though, I didn’t think my luck was that unfortunate this morning. Genellus, my teacher, is waiting for me with Hamley. He’s all saddled up, as I approach him he chews at his bit lazily as if to say “Can we get a move on, sweetheart?” My mum walks in front of us snapping pictures, I feel about ten and like its the first day of school or something. Hamley and I sauntered past her as she got back into her car, I gave a wave and pulled a dark pink flower off the frangipani tree to put into the pockets of my jodhpurs. Its my first time on Hamley, he surprised me by being very quick on his feet as we approached the field where we ride. As I took him through the warmup walk, I was enchanted by the cacophony of insects that danced under the sun rays as they came through the branches of a tree a few feet from me.

Clicking together the heels of my riding boots to urge my horse forward,   I enjoyed yet another one of the still and quiet mornings that have come to be my symbol of the thin barrier here between tranquility and vitality. The mildew on the grass sparkled up at me, and the morning was just wind, and silence and me. Not a bird in the sky, not a cloud in my soul. A curious filly kept cantering up to me and Hamley, she was cute and her copper mane almost blinded me in the intensifying sun as she bristled her teeth at me cheekily. I leisurely day dreamed about my future, imagining myself owning stables like these where I’ll teach young kids to ride and watching my daughter play in the grass with the nursemaid while my husband and I take a pair of horses out for a morning ride just like this.

Finally, Genellus shows up and the session begins. I am envious of his horse,  he looks at least 17 hands in height and I find out later that his name is Voodoo. Appropriate because I am completely entranced, see I think I like my horses they way I like my men – tall, dark and big. His black mane glinted like opium in the early morning light, and his very essence spoke of the kind of majesty that made me fall in love with equestrianism. The beauty behind man and beast coming together as a single unit of grace and fantastical beauty. He’s going to be my horse, I’m going to see to it. The next three hours are composed of walking, cantering and trotting and several times in the beginning…I was convinced Hamley was trying to take off with me. I enjoy every second of it though, the bated breaths, the adrenaline rushing through my veins after every canter, the sound of horses’ hooves flicking up dust and pebbles, the callousness of the reigns on the smooth skin of my fingers. Between Genellus and myself, we go through four horses in that time and by the time the session is over I barely have the strength to dismount and my knees buckled as my feet hit the ground. I giggled about it. My second horse of the day, Bobby Blue tried to eat the frangipani flower off my ear and kept walking off as I tried to unsaddle him. He was very jittery the whole time I was trying to hose him down so he could have  an easier time of cooling down in the growing heat and when I sprayed him over his muzzle he literally gives me the stink eye. If he could actually speak I’m entirely sure he would have given me a telling off, I grinned at the thought and apologised while giving him a peppermint. If only all men were so easily placated, I laughed to myself. It was completely pointless to have my jodhpurs washed, because they ended up being completely filthy…but ask me if I care…nope.

After getting home, and keeling over in my bed for a couple of hours, we ended up deciding to go to Fior de Latte in Petion-ville for some pizza. As is atypical for a Friday night, the streets are all abuzz with people getting ready to have a night of adventure, debauchery and compas! The restaurant is no different except its more of a family scene, with toddlers, their parents and high schoolers participating in the burgeoning romances we often think will last forever at that age. I love this restaurant because it so quaint and lovely, the children of the President can often be spotted here with their friends grabbing some ice cream or digging into some pizza. Unlike the States, the President’s children here in Haiti have a much more informal relationship with the public, usually socialising and greeting people wherever they go. Like their father, the two sons are also a very big part of the Haitian music scene and can often be seen performing at concerts and carnivals around the city. Most celebrities in Haiti are like this, very accessible to the public. You can go out swimming somewhere, walk into a shop, or go have lunch at a hotel and run into someone you’ve seen on TV. They’re completely casual about it, members of the public adjust to seeing them going about their daily lives with their families and respect their space. I enjoy that there is no superiority here in that sense, people can reach the heights of Haitian society but still just get along with their ordinary lives outside the spotlight just like you and me. The idolisation and mania that I’ve seen present in the States is just not here in such a grand capacity. Fior de Latte is owned by an Italian couple, and the seating is mostly outdoors underneath hundreds of little lights that are weaved into the shrubbery and lavender flowers above. My sister keeps dragging me over to get her ice cream, the pink ice cream in the pink cup with the pink spoon…and they say that children are easy to please. Their ice cream is ten seconds away from a dairy coma, its so damn good and I enjoy listening to the flurry of laughter circulating around people’s conversations. The two older women who were sitting by the ice cream window smiled knowingly at me and my sister, I know they assumed she was my daughter since she’s my carbon copy at that age but it doesn’t bother me. I dream of having babies that look just like her. The giggling teens in the next gable reminded me of the summers I used to spend with my friends in Tanzania when I was younger, scamming on boys and dreaming about being exactly the age I am now.

Its funny how close you are to your reality when you dream, a few months ago I was dreaming about sitting under these lights with my family and today here is my reality.

Make it happen. Whatever it is.

El Rancho

Trivial as it sounds, our weekly trips to the Caribbean supermarket are always my favourite thing to do with my mother. Something about taking time to think about what it takes to make a home, and seeing how it is that my mother creates her life gives me a great sense of joyous calm. My sister usually finds a way to come with us, managing to end up picking up something that she just has to have. Toddlers are special creatures, everything in the world is new and yet they speak to you as though they know exactly what they are asking for. Today, a skipping rope, which she clutches to herself as I drive her around in the trolley. We put the food around her, her eyes taking in all the common products as though they were pieces of a wondrous world she could not yet grasp. This did not stop her from reaching for things beyond her grasp regardless, eternally undeterred by her desire to accumulate ‘one day wonders’ that she would discard in hours. Never to be heard from or seen again, like the plastic ghosts of missing people…shoved into her toy trays and cupboards. A man greets my mother, he is part of the supermarket staff and though I do not know him…he hugs me like we are old friends, spontaneously reunited. When my mother wanders off to pick up something, he asks me if I have a boyfriend… I laugh…such dalliances are common. Men will never fail to try and reach, even when they know what they seek is way too far above them, like my curious sister.

The packer helps us to put our groceries away in the car, after having stood in line playing games with my little sister. Hide and seek, she said…she would hide behind mummy and I would pretend it was a challenge to seek her. Children are so easily amused, and so content to find joy in repetition. Unfortunately, today the lady at the counter has no pelewele lollipops for my sister. As we buckle into the car and drive off, I enjoy the passing trees flashing their foliage at me. The whole trip I spend my time trying to take pictures in motion, none of them come out very well and I begin to feel that the bougainvillea – with its pink and white flowers perched on every hedge – has begun to feel sorry for me. It watches my feeble attempts to capture the city with it’s flower heads hanging languorously over the cement walls of the residential homes as we pass. My mother thinks she has made a wrong turn, and I admire her for being able to distinguish between a right and a wrong in this tumbling maze of streets. I’ll get a hang of the way the city bends soon enough, everyday I try to remember the names of the streets we frequent but like all new things – patience must come before knowledge.

Two hours later, we are on our way back into the city and it has come alive even more so in the night. People buying fresh, barbeque meat from the road side and congregating in small groups to play cards, laugh and socialise. We pass a well reputed hang out spot called ‘Muncheez’, its curdling with people getting their food game up for the night ahead. The hotel where we are going to meet my mother’s friends is called ‘El Rancho’, and supposedly I have been here before. Alas, my mind is like a bad sponge and it cannot hold onto the watery details that would be retained in a memory such as that. The hotel is resplendent, it’s absolutely gorgeous…all in white. Strangely enough, as I looked at the architecture I was reminded of an ice cream cake filled with delicious white filling and all the dips and arches that would make a spoon’s dreams come to life. Frangipani trees litter the parking lot, and as has become my custom, I pick a flower off the tree and tuck it behind my ear. Its petals kissing my kinky curls as it’s smell mischievously lingered under my nostrils on its path to my ear. I have loved these flowers since childhood, they grew all over my grandparents’ house. The entrance way we walk through is pure magic. A long walkway fringed on each side with little circular ponds, arches as graceful as the leap of a ballerina’s arm through the sky and at it’s end hangs a magnificent chandelier. I look up into its dappled light, and the crystals that hang from it like ripened fruit. They glint charmingly down at me…seeming to be as captured by my awe as I am by their infinite beauty.

Corals of people set along tables like cutlery laugh at jokes I do not understand, the swimming pool is a deep indigo blue and it’s water promises a coolness that I wish I could savour. As we sit down with my mother’s friends, an adorable couple from New York, I look up into the sky to search for stars. Tonight, the clouds have chosen to display their vanity and stand in front of the stars seeking the limelight. The men sit opposite us, seeming to close all three women in a circle of protection. I order a cosmopolitan, our conversations are dominated by ambition, life lessons and the importance of gender roles. There is a great emphasis in Haitian culture in both man and woman knowing their role within the relationship and contributing their strengths to creating a conducive partnership. This traditional way of viewing relationships is a remnant of the African culture still burning a fierce fire in the modern Haitian customs. We speak of the importance of a woman being the teacher and the nurturer of the man and the children, only through her superior growth and spiritual wellness can a healthy family be maintained. A strong woman levitates a man to greater heights than he can ever seek to achieve alone, and in watching the two couples present in the conversation glance knowingly at one another – it is evident that this wisdom has spoken its blessing over these two marriages. We speak of the importance of knowing one’s worth, and not being afraid to maintain your partner at their best in all instances of life. We speak of how refreshing it is for us as Africans to be somewhere like Haiti, which feels like a home away from home simply because it has managed to maintain such a rich and steady grasp on its African heritage in so many aspects of its being. I enjoy these conversations, this fluid exchange of wisdom between elder and younger…each lending their own experience to the collective pool.

We sit there late into the night, until finally our conversation begins to only trickle out…like a tap that has yet to be closed properly by a precise hand. A flash catches my eye on the balcony above us, I wonder sleepily to myself what it could be as I watch the cloth move through the air as though on invisible strings. I am reminded of a lily unfurling, its long petals revealing nothing and yet promising a pearlescent world beyond what we can imagine. I come to find that it is just a man folding a very large table cloth, and I am entirely sure that is time for me to find my way to my bed and sleep. This thought translates like a whisper amongst us, and soon we are saying our goodbyes…driving off into a vibrant Friday night pulsating with gorgeous sound. We pass by vases and flower pots, metallic carvings or sun spirits and flowers, and I ask my mother why the owners of these things feel so comfortable leaving them on the roadside at night. My mother says nobody would dare steal them due to superstition, the belief is that to steal these things would yield the fruits of consequences that would be a blight upon whomever dared. I quietly chew on the thought all the way home, stroking my sister’s shoulders as she sleeps. Her shoulders are like small chocolate-covered eggs on the tops of her arms. Finally we reach home, and I am reminded of something my brother and I used to say in Shona when we were no older than she is now.

“Tashika kumbaa!”

Which in English means, we have reached our home.

Walkies

My mother and I have started going for walks, Port-au-Prince has many dips and and steep climbs…its a meandering maze of winding roads and we just happen to live on one of many. On our first walk, we woke up an hour late and even though it was still dark…the sun caught us before we could get very far. People were already up, exercising just like us which intrigued me because I had never really thought that people here went out of their way to exercise. Even in saying that, I suppose they don’t…a morning stroll is not exactly the most of strenuous form of exercise that there is out here which is why I was only too happy to do it. I think I actually woke up half way through the walk when we turned into one of the busy main streets, Route de Freres, and a tap tap beamed its light straight into my face. I am entirely convinced that tap tap drivers are either insomniacs or run on absolutely no sleep. People were walking mostly alone, on their way to catch a ride somewhere important and those who were walking in groups were like my mother and me…simply doing it for the leisure. We were braless, and I was in shorts but despite this we got no strange looks…despite the popularity of Christianity in Haiti I am glad its preposterous body taboos have not created a complex in the people of this city. It is not uncommon to see women dressed exactly as I was or, as I very much enjoy, seeing men bathing outdoors in full view of whomever decides to watch. And Haitian men, well, they’re quite a sight!

This morning I actually had to wear a bra, because when my mum came to wake me, the idea of being up at 5:30am was distinctly unappealing and I had said I was going to pass on the walk. No sooner had she gone out the door, I decided that I should stop being lazy and actually get dressed so I did. Knowing that I would have to catch up with her, I thought I would be much better served if I had a little extra support. I ran out of our gate into the pitch black hoping that she had taken her usual route, the steep hill right outside our house was not kind to me in any regard and I could feel my throat beginning to burn. Much respect to those who actually enjoy running, I have no idea why anyone would ever find something like that relaxing. Huffing and puffing with nothing to blow down except the bile rising up in your parched throat.  I only run if its towards something I love, or away from something that scares me. This time round, it was the former because it rarely is the latter. Unless you count emotional running, I believe that I’ve quite mastered that, it may be far more accountable for keeping my body shapely than any physical activity I ever do. I think that’s true for a lot more people than those who actually care to admit it.

There is a section just above the hill that is particularly dark…the silence eerie, and I almost freaked out a little because I wasn’t entirely sure what I just ran past wasn’t actually a distorted creature of a person. Imagine my relief when I began to see the figure of my beautiful, little mummy coming up in front of me. Since we were in the earthquake, I have become increasingly protective of her well being. We could have lost her that day, and the memory of it still scares the shit out me everyday. I had always been protective over her, being unable to sleep through out my pubescence until I was absolutely sure she was home safe. But the Richter scale sure kicked that way up on that fateful day four years ago when I lay awake trying to convince myself the next morning wasn’t going to be the worst of my life. Can’t say that my relief at seeing her now matches my exultation that morning, but I am very much relieved because I can finally catch my breath and stop running. She is surprised to see me, but I explain to her that I can spend plenty of time sleeping and not nearly enough time with her. She grins, contented.

This morning, there is almost no one in the road and I start to miss the four old men we had seen walking briskly in unison the previous morning. I love how there is a much deeper sense of community here than I experienced while experiencing city life in the States, how people come together and include others in their daily lives on so many levels. Strangers in the street actually take the time to briefly greet you and each other, when you walk into a room filled with any amount of people…you are expected to go around individually greeting them all. Its a mutual respect that is fostered in the culture, the idea that everyone deserves your kind acknowledgement and I think its a beautiful reflection of most of African culture. We walk past a man standing next to two big ice blocks on the street, the blocks of ice will be used to keep things cool through the day or make frisko – an ice cone popular with kids and adults alike. Myself included! He and I stare at each other as I pass, staring is part of the culture here too. Usually staring is perceived as rude in western cultures, but here in Haiti as in many other places, it is a sign of unabashed interest and acknowledgement. Both genders and all ages participate in openly staring at each other wherever they are, and instead of being embarrassed when they are caught, they just keep on looking at you. They’ll turn their head right around to stare at you even once you have passed. Almost as if to say “Yes, I have seen you and I see you seeing me.”  No shame in this game, and the man adds a mischievous wink just for good measure while the other one blows me two kisses.

I only just get around to catching my breath when we’re already on our way up the next steep hill on our way back home. The sun is finally up, the birds are chirping away and the scent of flowers is finally catching the air as if they just yawned in a fit of wakefulness. I am relieved that we managed to be lucky enough to encounter the lady that carries donoughts on her head. I remember doing that myself as a young girl, and it makes me grin – not nearly as much as the idea of eating those six plump donoughts for breakfast though!