You travel to Haiti, this country that is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. A country without a stable government and has just experienced a natural disaster of unspeakable proportions. The last thing you expect to find is a place thriving with art, culture and joyful exuberance. Such is the case in Jacmel.
Yesterday, we left Port-au-Prince and traveled over the Karate Mountain range. We only had two close calls, one where we almost hit a tap tap (a brightly colored passenger bus with travelers mounted on the roof) and another, where we narrowly missed a dog darting across the narrow road. Our driver, Robert, deserves an induction in the Indy Hall of Fame.
We arrived in Jacmel, typically a lazy tourist city by the sea on the south side of the island of Haiti, to witness a torrent of activity in preparation for Carnival. This is the first carnival to be held in Haiti since the Earthquake. While most relief efforts were focused on Port-au-Prince, Jacmel suffered greatly during the earthquake, sustaining a tremor that measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. The devastation in this seaside villa is profound. Rubble and burned out cars line the street. Rose colored New Orleans style buildings have huge chunks where their facades have crumbled. There are tent cities here too, just not as vast as Port-au-Prince. Despite all of this, it’s carnival time and the artists who live in this city have been hard at work for months on end preparing elaborate huge papier-mâché masks and puppet-like structures to feature in the parade. When I say artists in Jacmel, think nearly everyone you meet. Every neighborhood and every street has an artisan who specializes in making papier-mâché creatures, bowls and masks. It’s as if everybody who lives in Jacmel is an “artist in residence.”
Our guide for the next few days is Pascale Faublas, an acclaimed papier-mâché artist who lives in Jacmel and helps manage the collective of artisans for Fairwinds Trading, the organization behind the Heart of Haiti program. Pascale is boho style stunning and completely game to show us how to get the most out of carnival and meet her fellow artist friends.
We first visited the studio of Bezelle Osnel. He’s an amazing artist who makes trays out of papier-mâché for sale at Macys.com. During the earthquake, Osnel’s studio completely collapsed. He had no place to work, no place to earn a living. Nothing. The Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund stepped forward and provided funding so he could rebuild his studio specifically so he could continue making products for sale at Macy’s. It was like old home week with the Fairwinds Trading team with hugs and kisses all around. We stayed only briefly as the drums were beginning to beat, commotion all around as everyone in Jacmel was getting ready for carnival.
We visited the ateliers of a few more artisans. Willa and the design team led by Juliana Um of Fairwinds Trading, admiring the work and products being prepared for shipment to Macy’s. Everywhere we went we saw huge masks, giant puppet like structures of animals, sea creatures, devils, and two-headed humans — hundreds and hundreds of giant masks.
We rushed ahead to the main street of Jacmel, which Pascale explained would soon be impassable once the parade begins. Think the Haiti version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The sun was beating down on us, the crowds were beginning to gather, little children darted up to us wearing masks both fun and freaky, encouraging us to take their photos. We had to get undercover and find a spot to watch the parade. And we had to get there fast.
Pascale led us to a venue that might best be described as a “pop-up restaurant.” A clever entrepreneur, a Haitian-American, we came to know as “Dady” recently returned to Haiti and literally as we arrived was putting the finishing nails into the deck on his storefront. We paid a cover charge of $12, clamored up the rickety stairs as his grown kids and wife carted up tables, put together a make-ship bar and penciled the menu on a torn piece of cardboard. Within half an hour, the place was packed and the rum and platters of conch were flowing. The “poulet grillé” sold out before we even had a chance to order. Over the next hour, we heard workers below putting finishing touches on the deck, adding a beam here and a nail there as more people arrived. We prayed for our lives and accepted our fate. After all, this was Haiti, Jacmel and carnival and the worst that could happen is that we plunged into the throngs of people below. Surely the papier-mâché masks would cushion our fall.
The parade was a wild loud, extraordinary combination of brightly colored costumes, music, and elation. Not exactly what you’d expect from a country that is still in serious recovery mode after the earthquake. Somebody told me that one in four people in Haiti considers themselves an artist. Nowhere is this truer than in Jacmel. Despite the crushing poverty, every child, every grandmother and nearly every person on the street was either clad in a mask, dancing or adding some creative element to the parade. I would hesitate to guess that as many people participated in the parade as actually “watched” the parade.
At various times, we’d venture out into the street with our flipcams and cameras. One didn’t dare venture far, lest you got swept away by the crowds pulsing forward, each wave of people and masks more elaborate and packed together than before. I’ve been to parades before and when the parade finishes, typically the crowds disperse. Not so in Jacmel. When the groups of masks ended, it was simply replaced by crowds of people dancing in the street. Such may be the nature of Haiti…one wildly extraordinary experience, followed by another.
A blogger friend remarked, “This is the Haiti they don’t show you on TV.” Indeed, we scanned the crowds for a glimpse of a news crew. Surely some news outlet would want to cover the jubilation and communal hope of one of Haiti’s major cities. Aside from an aid worker here or there, we appeared to be the only foreigners in the place. Later, two members of our blogging team posted CNN ireports. At least, in addition to spending a spectacular day in Haiti, we were able to share a story you don’t normally see or hear about carnival, post-earthquake style.