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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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

 

 

Independence Palace Saigon – The Prism of History

 

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What is commonly called The Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace was built in the centre of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1962. This followed an air raid by two renegade pilots of the then Vietnam Air Force on behalf of the Viet Cong, seeking to assassinate the then President Diem, which destroyed a wing of the then Norodam Palace. The President, who escaped the air raid, instructed that a new Palace to be built on the site, to the design of a Vietnamese architect who won one of the world’s foremost architectural prizes for his design.

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President Diem never saw the finished work since he and his family were assassinated, but it became the seat of power of the subsequent Presidents of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam as it was known. That era ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces took the Palace, a scene reflected in a famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the Palace gates.

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For me this is not an inspiring building despite its Architectural awards, but looking at it, and inside it, lets us look at history through a prism and reflect on some of what it means historically. The Palace has subsequently been used for State occasions but it is essentially a destination for tourists exploring Vietnam. The balcony from which Presidents looked down on crowds, is not a convenient vantage point for people to take photos down a wide boulevard lined by a park, the play ground of the French Colonials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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What strikes you first and foremost about the interior is how grandiose an pompous it is. Throne rooms, extravagant 800 seater meetings rooms ,where the great and the good of that tiny, no longer existing Republic and their visitors assembled to chart the course of the country and to play its important part in the Geopoliticis of the era of the “domino effect”. Today it all seems pointless and irrelevant, with the then famous people who occupied those rooms gone and largely forgotten. But then how many countries do we see in the world with poor people who have been ruled by people where display has far outweighed substance in importance.

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In the basement is a bunker to be used by the President in time of war or emergency. It has offices bedrooms and the then latest communication technology still in place. Despite the fact that it is only 41 years since that country’s demise, the equipment looks stone age. You realise that in the era in which we exist, history is defined not just by time, but also by technological progress, things and people become objects of history much earlier than they used to. History is foreshortened.

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And individuals see this building according to their lives at the time. A woman I met in Saigon who had been in her 30s when the tank crashed through the gates, told me that I should not take too much notice of the incident with the tank, “to be honest” she said, “don’t take too much notice of this drama about tanks smashing gates. In fact we just opened the gates and let them in”. Such is the joy of the prism effect on history.

 

Hue and The Perfume River – Vietnam

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The ancient city of Hue was the capital city if Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 when Vietnam was divided and acquired 2 Capital Saigon in the South and Hanoi in the North. The city’s biggest feature is the enormous 19th century Citadel that also houses what was the Imperial City the home of the then Emperors.

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The City is crossed by the Perfume River. Upstream of the city were many orchards and flowers that fell from those orchards used to fill the river and float through it giving off a scent hence the name. Many of those orchards are gone but annual flowers still float down.img_0345

img_3348The river is very much alive, Transport, fishing and now tourism fill it. One of the most common sights on the river is boats carrying the rich sediment from the river bottom back to the city. The boats are rudimentary and the operators get paid per loan for the sediment which is used in building. To see those boats filled with the water line so close to the level of the river you wonder why they don’t sink but somehow from generations of experience they thrive.

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Along the river are pagodas and also the tombs of former emperors. These burial sites and tombs were identified and designed in the lifetime of an emperor and they are more like small palaces than a burial site, set in carefully selected beautiful sites out of the city along the river. Although there are temples and memorials in these sites, actually the emperors are buried somewhere in the large enclosure but with no one knowing exactly where. Fear of exhumation was such that the Emperor himself was buried secretly in an unmarked grave somewhere on the sit, which was usually tended by former wives of which they could have hundreds.

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The City itself is dominated by the Citadel an enormous construction surrounded by some 10kms of walls. The Citadel suffered huge damage in the Vietnam War in the Tet offensive such that many of the buildings have been destroyed. Some have been restored and it is a wonderful place to visit, although you need time to do that. Many people bypass Hue and their way North and South but for me it was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam and a must visit.

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The Marble Mountains – Vietnam

 

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The Marble Mountains are 5 marble and limestone hills that are just south of Da Nang on the east coast of Vietnam. The area is famous for marble creations although the marble no longer comes from these hills but is brought from other parts of Vietnam. Each of the hills has a name relating to an element, metal, water, wood, fire and earth. The hills are on an essentially flat coastal plain and rise out of the plain in an almost random way. img_0159

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These marble factories produce amazing carvings, all entirely carved and polished by hand. You can buy designs there or they make designs to order. The craftsmanship is amazing although there is a major discrepancy between what a carving costs and what someone gets paid to make one. You can wander round the marble factories and watch the carvings being made all the way from a block of marvel to a beautiful modern or traditional carving.

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Buddhist sanctuaries and grottos are inside the mountains, having been constructed to fit the contours, and these themselves have some extraordinary and intricate work. There is a lift up part of the mountain that is accessible to visitors, followed by some 150 steps up to the summit. The amazing views from the mountains look out over the beautiful beaches of this part of the country and west across the plain to the mountains in the distance. These hills have been a look out point for centuries.

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It is said that in the Vietnam war the Vietcong had a hospital in these hills close to an air force base hiding its existence effectively in plain sight. There are tickets to buy but reasonable priced. The local currency, the Dong, has a lot of zeros in it which is quite hard to get used to, so you have to remember that when you are told that something costs say 250, you need to add three zeros to that figure!

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This area of coast is now subject to huge development for the tourist industry with big and numerous resorts being built down the coast from Da Nang to cater for the tourist trade predominantly from China, Korea and Japan. In a way it is a sad sight because the natural beauty of the coast here is stunning. But ask a Vietnamese person about it and they are happy that it will bring income and prosperity to the area, the classic conundrum of development.

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Hoi An – Vietnam

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Hoi An, the name means “Peaceful meeting place” sits on the east coast of Vietnam in the centre of the country. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site being a beautifully preserved trading town showing a whole variety of cultures, and it has been a trading town since the 15th century. img_0090

 

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The town stretches along the river and is a beautiful evocation of past eras and has become a very popular tourist destination, allowing people to enjoy the beauty of the town, but at the same time explore the surrounding areas by bike motor bike or even by boat. The town sits on the estuary of the Thu Bon river so there are access to beaches also.

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img_0120At night the town is lit with lanterns and the many restaurants and bars come alive. There is a huge variety of food from traditional Vietnamese street food to western food if you want it. For myself the street food in Vietnam is amazing, filled with flavour despite its seeming simplicity. You realise that many places are family run which use recipes that they protect to create their popularity which they guard assiduously. img_0113

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The river is alive a real river giving a livelihood from fishing and from transport. In my wanderings I found on the bank of the estuary a place where small boats were built. The builder collecting planks of wood from wherever he could find them and turning them into beautiful small boats used for fishing or carrying people.

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Vietnam likes tickets, so there are often places where you might expect to go freely but for which you have to buy a ticket, but they are not expensive and that is just part of the culture of the place. Hoi An is famous for clothes making so if you want some clothes made in silk or cotton they will get it done while you are there from the fabrics you like at a great price.

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Hoi An is a beautiful place to go and a fun place too with a lot to see and to do and it’s a must see in Vietnam. The weather can be very hot and humid, so its an advantage to research that before you go.

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