Jacmel, Haiti, – Carnival Time

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Jacmel is a small town, a fishing village, and situated south west of Port au Prince Haiti. While Port au Prince is electric and you need to have our wits about you, Jacmel is laid back, a place where you can walk the streets at any time in safety. It is welcoming, walk able, and atmospheric.

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Two great festivals that happen in Haiti every year are Fet Gede, in November and Carnival, in February. Fet Gede celebrates the Day of The Dead, a voodoo festival when, according to folklore, Baron Samedi takes people from their graves and welcomes them into the underworld. There is lots of voodoo, ritual dancing and drinking rum. Carnival, on the other hand, is a riot of colour, noise, and ordered chaos when the small town of Jacmel is transformed and welcomes people from all over Haiti to celebrate culture and freedom. It is about costumes made from papier mache, dancing music and celebration. Preparations by individuals and groups go on for many months before. It is unlike any other carnival that I have ever seen in that it celebrates uniquely Haitian things in a uniquely Haitian way.

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Papier mache, simply pieces of paper stuck together with water or paste is an art form in Haiti with some wonderfully beautiful pieces made in moulds, and it is the centrepiece of the costumes for carnival. Celebrate Haitian music, art, culture and their history particularly their rebellion as slaves, which resulted in an independent state in 1804 of which they are rightly proud.

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The carnival is special, it is fun, and it is energy and an unforgettable experience.

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Port Au Prince, Haiti.

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If you travel far and wide you think you have been to poor countries and have seen poverty and deprivation and met people living difficult lives, and then you go to Haiti. The capital, Port Au Prince is a shock to the system. From the moment you exit the airport you are surrounded by noise, offers, urgency and traffic that is uniquely chaotic. But some how it works and beneath the extremes Haitians are friendly, soulful, stoic and they know how to enjoy themselves with music and dance.

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I stayed at the Hotel Oloffson, famed for being written about in Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians, and for rooms that are named after famous stars who have stayed there. It is in downtown Port Au Prince, not in the more Westernised suburb of Petionville, and more fun for that. The voodoo garden that surrounds it is filled with fascinating statues from the world of voodoo.

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Port Au Prince has not recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2010, which affected some 3m people and in which more than 230000 people were killed. Buildings are still wrecked and it is very slowly being rebuilt. Poverty is rife but Haitians never lose their positive outlook and pride in being who they are. It is a place where you should not take photos of people without asking first, a throw back to the old days of Papa Doc. Take a trip to the Iron market, a great introduction to the markets that dot Haiti filled with everything from trinkets, to food, to second hand clothes to voodoo icons and lotions. You don’t see a lot of people wearing helmets on motor bikes and scooters in Haiti but riding on the back of one of those is the cheap and easy way to get around. Take a trip up to Jalousie, a suburb up the hill, a place that is not recommended by tourist guides but once you get there, start talking, and overcome the initial suspicions  you start to experience what makes Haiti special. You will often be told not to go out alone, and it is a place to be careful, but don’t let that stop you enjoying the sheer feeling of energy and curiosity that Port Au Prince engenders

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Bankers!

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“The conservative banker is an impressive specimen, diffusing the healthy glow which comes of moderation in eating, living, and thinking. He sits in state and spends his days saying, with varying inflections and varying contexts, ‘no.’ … He says ‘yes’ only a few times a year. His rule is that he reserves his yesses for organizations so wealthy that if he said ‘no,’ some other banker would quickly say ‘yes.’ His business might be defined as the lending of money exclusively to people who have no pressing need of it.” — Fred Schwed Jr.

 

http://www.gryphonmanor.com/books

 

 

 

Money Lending

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Money makes the world go round. When it does not rotate quite as quickly as you desire do you reach out to a money lender? Or do you loathe the money lenders, the usurers? In his varied and extensive career in the money lending industry, George Watson has seen money lending in all its manifestations and became fascinated by its history and by its various effects on people and societies. Money lending has become an all-embracing all consuming monolith which either serves societies or devours them depending on your view.

Living life as both lender and borrower, encountering people from every part of the economic and social spectrum, there grew a deep understanding of the extent to which money lending in all its forms affects and implicates everyone, whilst simultaneously, society candy coats the activity and avoids the moral choices.

This book examines how life connects us all to the money lenders, how it started, how it evolved and where it is now. It examines the humour, the pathos, the successes and failures of an activity that has affected us or infected us since the dawn of history.

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George Watson was born in Malawi in Central Africa and educated in the UK. He read law and was called to the Bar in 1971. Being of an entrepreneurial and libertarian nature, he went into business on his own account, providing finance to small owner-managed start-up and early stage businesses in London. In 1998 he moved to Cape Town in South Africa to establish the same business in the new post apartheid South Africa. The business was sold to a government agency and now he divides his time between London and Cape Town, consulting, travelling widely and writing. His extensive travel has shown that the money lending phenomenon is global, its moral conflicts and its social hypocricies universal. Read all about it!!

http://www.gryphonmanor.com/books

 

 

 

 

 

A Money Lender’s Tale

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They say that everyone has a book in them, everyone has a story to tell that will fill at least one book. Some people are driven by the creative process and writing a book is an ambition that becomes real. But for most of us, it is just something that sits at the back of the mind, way down the bucket list. Often we can tell a story in conversation and be met with the refrain “Oh you should write a book!”  We smile, gratified that our little anecdote was well received, but that is all. And if, as I do, you have lots of stories to tell so that refrain repeats itself. Then eventually,  one day, as I did, you sit down and write a book.

 

Writing a book is daunting. You stare at a blank screen and wonder what should the first word be. Harder than it would seem! You want something explosive but inevitably you end up with a pronoun or preposition, in my case “it”! Then it pours out like water from an unblocked drain, words engulf the screen until you realise that none of it makes sense and then the real work starts. It’s a long arduous and educational process, endlessly refined. Stories, people and ideas from long ago float to the surface of your memory and you restrain yourself from embroidering them.

 

The creation morphs from simply being a means of talking to yourself, to the point where you are happy that others will understand it and grasp it, and be able to laugh and cry and question themselves about its message. And above all, you hope that the reader will at the conclusion, be satisfied, amused, and thoughtful.

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A Money Lender’s Tale is a story about one life in the world of finance, or rather the world of “money lending”, for that is the true nature of all finance. A world that engulfs us all although we are not always aware of that, an octopus-like industry that we both need and yet despise. Its about the rich and the poor, the small farmer who fed his best breeding pig on marijuana and cream cakes, to the couple selling t-shirts in the market who build a million dollar construction and plant hire business, and of course it is about those whose lives are consumed by failure and greed fed by the money lenders. It is not a “how to” book, not a clarion call to lend money, nor is it an apologia, it’s about a life.

 

You can find it at http://www.gryphonmanor.com

 

 

Vinales Valley Cuba

 

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About 200 kms west from Havana, a two to three-hour drive lays the small town of Vinales, which lies in the Vinales Valley located in the Sierra de los Organos Mountains. It’s a small traditional town where most people work in the cigar industry. The valley is beautiful and a welcome respite from the heat of Havana.

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The valley is wide and flat, which enhances the contrasts with the mountains. The town itself has woken to the tourist industry and has myriad casas letting out rooms to visitors. It is a place for cigars, hiking, and riding. It’s beautiful and its potential to entertain visitors is growing as new hotels are built there.

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If you want a fun ride to Vinales you can hire an old car, one of the old taxis and drive down. Its good to take some advice as to which car to take since many are on offer, and a good way to choose if to ask the owner of the Casa if you are staying at one. The car that took me to Vinales had been in the same family since the 1950s, was now a family heirloom constantly maintained and used by one family member as a taxi. The old engine had its day and it now sported a Nissan engine and the loudest sound system I ever heard!

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Find your way to a small cigar maker and learn how cigars are made, and they can sell them to you since the government permits part of their production to be sold privately. It is fascinating to learn and if you can handle it smoke one at the end. You learn everything from how to grown and dry and cure to the end product.

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Another fascinating site is the Stone Age paintings on a small hill outside the town of Vinales. They are coloured and distinctive. Away from the hotels, there are some good local restaurants and if you have a good driver then he or she can point the way.

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Vinales is beautiful relaxing and interesting before you head back to the energy of Havana.

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This Man in Havana

 

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In my early youth, Cuba was never far from one’s mind. The revolution with Castro Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the Bay of Pigs, The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Blockade, the decadence and depravity of pre-revolutionary Cuba and Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana made Cuba romantic, scary, and fascinating all at the same time. When the time came to go there a sense that I might be disappointed after all that lurked in the back of my mind but I wasn’t.

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Havana is very much open for the business of visitors, and it is a great city to walk in. People are polite helpful hungry to do business well, and its very safe since the authorities are well aware of the consequences of crime on tourism. There are of course the usual hustlers hanging around but they usually take no for an answer. Development means that new and old sit side by side in the Havana of today.

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Havana is famous for its old 1950s American cars which have been lovingly cherished and preserved through the blockade and continue to serve the residents as well as being a draw for visitors as taxis. These taxis can vary in quality and price so ask around and the best way is to get a recommendation from a local or the place you are staying. It is not only antique cars but you can also find antique Jukeboxes in bars pumping out Cuban music both traditional and modern.

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It can be wearing to have a dish shoved into your face for a donation when you have had to listen to Guantanamera for the 29th time that day, but look around the live music which is everywhere and there is some great music.

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The cult of Earnest Hemingway is prominent and there is a lot to look at. For me a visit to the Ambos Mundos where he stayed was fun, and if the rooftop bar now caters for mass tourism and the odd papa Hemingway look-alike the mojitos are great and will keep you mellow on a hot Havana afternoon.

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There is a lot of great architecture much of it being renovated and it is refreshing that these buildings and churches are not just for viewing they are used too. Sit in a café or bar at the end of the day and absorb the atmosphere and be part of the tradition of talking and absorbing the good things in life at which the Cubans are so adept.

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Problems? Few, just ATMs which are few and far between and sometimes empty so bring cash or use banks, and wifi. If like me you were born before technology and progressed from “great idea but it will never work” to being a complete addict of gadgets and gizmos which all seem to need Wi-Fi you might freak, but stay somewhere that has it or join the interesting groups hanging outside hotels and places using their Wi-Fi hot spots, its actually quite fun and a relief to the addiction.

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Someone wrote that as far as cities go Havana is a festering treasure chest, a primary colour. That is right.

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