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

 

 

 

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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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.

 

Ha Long Bay – Vietnam

 

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Ha Long Bay is situated on the north east coast of Vietnam, a ride of about 160 kms from Hanoi. It is an area of about 1500 square kilometres comprising some 2000 islets and Karsts, which has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. Ha Long Bay means the bay of descending dragons. It has its own micro ecology and bio diversity and a huge variety of islets.

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You can access the bay from a number of places but the most obvious are Halong town and Bai Chai a small town about 15 minutes away. Travel around the islands is by boat, either old junks which cruise slowly around and on which you can stay overnight or by smaller boats on day trips. One of the delights of this trip is the Vietnamese food that is made locally especially the sea food. On the boats you can order food and have a great meal as you cruise around. The nice thing is that you can order so you get something special.

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There are lots of people selling tours to Ha Long in Hanoi and the local area, many acting only as agents and selling tickets and those tickets can have various prices for the same tour or trip, so it is important to look around. The price differences can be big. For myself I negotiated the various elements of the visit independently so got amazing deals on transport boats and food, but tat is easier if you are a solo traveller than if in a group. Also I stayed in the town of Bai Chai rather than Halong itself , although very close by and that town is very good value. It is being developed for the mass market, so as with many places in Vietnam it is going to change quickly.

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The islets Karsts and the seas around them are a visual delight, something quite unique, but 2000 islets is a lot so its good to be selective and visit the ones you want. Each has a name, the elephant, chicken, he and she, etc so you can be specific. There are many caves and grottos on the islets, some can only be visited at low tide and others any time so find out about those. Some, unfortunately in my view, have lighting that can give them a slightly Disneyworld feel, but they are amazing for all that.

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Halong is a joy, and an indispensible part of any tour of the variety and wonders of North East Vietnam.

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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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