BURNING TYRES UNDER BRIGHT BLUE SKIES: SUNDAY 7 FEBRUARY

We woke up far too early, our internal clocks being out of synch, but still I had to pinch myself. Was I really here? Had I actually made it to Haiti, after all this time?  Too excited to hang around in our room we took a stroll around the garden before breakfast.

There was a pool with an attractive fish fountain, an unattractive layer of scum on the water, and some mismatched, decrepit furniture scattered around it. No sign of Greene’s dead politician at the bottom though. While we were checking out the Vodou statues – Zaka, Erzulie Freda, Baron Samedi, Damballah Wedo and Damballah Ayida (see earlier post) - a man wearing a bright orange T-shirt, orange baseball cap and an over-eager expression, approached us. He was muttering to himself in Creole or, possibly, French, it was hard to tell as the slurred, slightly mumbled words were spoken quickly.

‘Je ne comprend pas,’ I said in my schoolgirl French.

‘I tourist guide,’ he replied, slower now. ‘I show you around. Thirty years I show people Haiti. I tourist guide. I show you around.’

We told him we’d come looking for him after breakfast and headed up the steep stone steps, to the restaurant on the verandah, where an elegant black lady was tapping into a laptop, an open briefcase and a pot of tea beside her. After half an hour, and while we were still waiting for our food, Richard Morse, the hotel manager wandered into the restaurant, easily identifiable by his long grey ponytail, and joined the elegant lady – his wife, Lunise, as it turned out. Born to an American academic father and a famous Haitian singer, Emerante de Pradines who was also staying at the hotel, Richard Auguste Morse is a well-known celebrity in Haiti. He is the founder, lead male vocalist, and songwriter of the mizik raisin band RAM, named after his initials (Lunise, is the lead female vocalist). Raisin (roots music) combines the ancient drum rhythms of Vodou with the beat of American rock and roll. Every Thursday night, RAM performs to packed audiences in a specially designed stage behind the Oloffson reception. One of the band’s most popular singles “Ibo Lele” (Dreams Come True) a song with both English and Kreyòl lyrics, was included in the soundtrack for the film Philadelphia.

Richard is also the cousin of Michel Martelly, the outgoing and hugely unpopular elite-backed President who is also one of Haiti’s best-known musicians (Sweet Mickey). Richard is a strong opponent of his cousin’s politics, though; as he was of several of his corrupt predecessors.

‘The paramilitary only came for me once,’ he told us. ‘They grabbed me by the arms, so I started singing. It freaked them out so much they let me go.’

The night in question was Thursday 8 September 1994, three years into Raoul Cédras’ reign of terror during which time an estimated 3,000 men, women and children had been murdered by or with the complicity of his regime. The band had begun to play “Fey” (“Leaf”), a song which contained lyrics of Vodou folkloric origin and no overt references to the political situation, but which had been widely played on the radio and taken up as an anthem in support of Aristide, whom Cédras had deposed. A military officer in the audience suddenly decided to enforce the ban on the song and ordered the band to stop playing. As armed men carried Richard Morse out of the hotel, the band played on. Using a wireless microphone, Morse began singing the words of a prayer to the Vodou loa to grant him safe passage. His terrified kidnappers released him and took another captive instead. Concerned about the safety of their fans, the band ceased performing for several weeks.

‘Will you be performing at Carnaval?’ I asked hopefully.

‘No. I spoke out against the government once too often. I’ve been banned these past few years.’

On discovering we were from England he told us that he’d toured the UK three times playing mainly in theatres.

‘You’d have gone down a storm at Glastonbury,’ I said. It’s true. He would.

The hotel, which was now empty, had been full, he explained, but on Friday, with the fatalities mounting and Martelly refusing to step down, his guests had jumped on a plane. ‘It’s Graham Greene times in Haiti at the moment. Empty hotels and political unrest,’ he said.

Which means burning tyres and roadblocks, I thought, suddenly nervous again.

‘Are we mad?’ I asked.

‘No. You’re risk-takers,’ he said with a smile.

Right!

‘But I wouldn’t go anywhere without a guide.’

‘Have you come across Jean?’ I asked hopefully.

He shook his head. ‘You should look up Milfort Bruno. He’s in all the guidebooks,’ he said gesturing to my Lonely Planet guide.’

 Off we went in search of Milfort, who works out of a dilapidated mahogany craft shop at the end of the drive. We’d barely reached the gates when Jean intercepted us.

‘Milfort away today. I’m his good friend. I am tourist guide for thirty years. Milfort my friend. I am tourist guide.  Thirty years. I show you around,’ Jean said bouncing from foot to foot.

And so it was that, after a brief negotiation as to cost, we set off down the hill with the amicable Jean to the Plaza to buy tickets for the Carnival. It was hot; almost 31°C, and the stench of diesel fumes combined with the smell of the sewage trickling down the sides of the street was growing ever stronger. There was rubbish everywhere, and the pavements and streets we were carefully negotiating were in need of repair. Every now and again Jean very kindly pointed out large gaping holes in our paths that, on closer inspection, we realised were open sewers. Best avoided (see chapter 12, page 171).

The Plaza used to be the go-to hotel for foreign correspondents back in the days before Digicel, when the Oloffson’s internet connection and phone lines were frequently down. The entrance was heavily guarded and a stand was being built outside the front.

‘Too dangerous in the streets,’ said Jean. ‘Lots of people dancing. Lots of drinking. Sometimes fights with broken bottles. People injured. People killed. You watch Carnaval from this stand.’

Sounded good to me.

The hotel was full of Haitians who’d moved abroad but who’d returned for Mardi Gras. In Port-au-Prince it is the government, businesses and wealthy Haitian families that fund the Carnival celebrations, one of the largest in the Caribbean and North Americas, leading up to this festival. But not this year. Irritated by the ‘troublemakers’ from the slums protests against Martelly, and the ensuing riots on the streets, the government and the rich were holding back their funds. Carnaval, if it happened at all, would be on a much smaller scale.

‘Carnaval is cancelled today,’ the receptionist told us. ‘Try again tomorrow. Or Wednesday.’

Stands were popping up all over the Champs de Mars, a series of parks split by wide boulevards that collectively make up the Place des Héros de l’Independence. Groups of enthusiastic Haitians were hard at work painting the wooden structures in all manner of colourful designs. With all this effort going into the preparations, and so much excitement in evidence, surely Carnival wouldn’t be cancelled tomorrow. Would it?

We walked through the park to the grassy mound where a magnificent, bronze of Jean-Jacques Dessalines sitting astride his horse, a victorious arm raised in the air, takes pride of place.

‘The first leader of the first black republic,’ I said.

‘You know about the history of my country?’ Jean asked.

‘A bit,’ I said.

A little further on and on a white plinth, Henri Christophe, who built the famous Citadelle Laferriè near Cap Haïtien, sat astride his horse.

‘One of the four heroes of Haiti,’ said Jean.

It was General Christophe who, along with General Alexandre Pétion, conspired to overthrow Emperor Dessalines, who was assassinated on October 17 1806 en route to battle the rebels. Christophe was elected president but irritated that Pétion had retained certain powers, he moved to the north. Tensions between the blacks of the north and mulattoes of the south were re-ignited, and Pétion was elected President of the southern Republic of Haiti. In 1811 a peace treaty was eventually agreed. The country was officially split in two, and Christophe declared himself King of the northern Kingdom of Haiti.

 ‘Now I show you the Palace,’ said Jean. ‘This way. I show you Palace. National Palace. I show you Palace where President lives.’ 

Jean had a habit of repeating everything he said, but with the words in a slightly different order. I suspect he hoped that this way we’d understand him better. Occasionally we did, but after a few lunchtime beers and several swigs from his ever-handy bottle of rum, his English became more pigeon and understanding him became almost impossible.

The National Palace, the centrepiece of the Champs de Mars, used to be the official residence of the President of Haiti. Designed by the Haitian architect, George Baussan, in 1912, the impressive whiter-than-white building shaped like the letter E, was twice the size of the White House. But I was curious. Hadn’t the remains of the National Palace, which was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake, been removed and nothing yet built in its place?

‘National Palace,’ said Jean, totally without irony, as we came to a stop outside a vast fenced off area, hiding … well nothing. Just the old site.

‘Is it going to be rebuilt?’ I asked.

‘One day. One day. Yes. One day.’

And then he told us that he’d lost thirteen members of his family in the earthquake. His house, too, was destroyed but he’d been out in the street at the time. He pointed to a scar on his head, the injury he’d sustained that dreadful day.

The once neat order of the Champs de Mars is the starkest reminder of the damage wrought by the 2010 earthquake. It is no longer a place to linger, as Yolande had done in The Other Side of the Mountain, which is set in 2001. I glanced around suddenly disoriented. 

‘Where is the statue of the Marron Inconnu?’

Created by the Haitian sculptor, Albert Mangones in 1968, the statue of the Unknown Slave was commission by François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier to commemorate the runaway slaves who revolted against France. From what I remembered from my research, it was situated in the square opposite the Palace, close to the statue of Toussaint Louverture, but all I could see was another cordoned off area. 

‘This way. This way,’ said Jean, hurrying across the road.

While we were peering at the statue through a coin-sized hole in the fence, a man approached Jean and high-fived him. ‘My friend,’ said Jean beaming. ‘He has a key. My friend. He show you round. My friend.’

The Marron Inconnu is a very impressive statue and a perfect emblem of Haiti’s history. The slave’s left leg is extended as he lunges forward, his right foot in a broken chain, and he holds a machete as he blows into a conch shell, calling for revolution.

We thanked ‘Jean’s friend’ (one of many, we were to discover), gave him a few dollars, then set off for the Notre Dame Cathedral.  I could see from the pretty pink and yellow remains that this had once been a very beautiful building. During her search for Yvie, Yolande spent several nights here, on the cathedral’s steps. The steps had not been destroyed and I stared at them and imagined Yolande sleeping there, ‘one eye open, one eye closed’. A lump formed in my throat. She’s not real, I reminded myself. You made her up.

The next stop on our ‘guided tour’ was the Iron Market, an exotic red-metal structure (the original version had been destined for Cairo station), with two halls joined by a clock tower. One hall is dedicated to Haitian produce and the other Haitian crafts. It is situated in the dangerous Bel Air district. We needn’t have worried. The area was deserted.

‘The people are afraid after yesterdays riots,’ Jean said. ‘They stay at home.’

It was the same inside the Iron Market. One of the traders greeted us with open arms and, smiling broadly, offered to show us around every single stall. I gulped. There are some 900 traders in total. Simon, who hates shopping at the best of times, went very quiet and so, not wanting to appear rude, or disrespectful, I gamely followed our new guide. We traipsed down three lines, studying the piles of craftwork on about thirty of the cramped stalls, before I plucked up the courage to admit we probably weren’t going to buy anything.

‘Okay. Then I show you Vodou,’ he said undeterred, and steered us to the furthermost corner of the hall.

‘Erzulie Freda’s vévé,’ I said, recognising the brightly pink, white, gold and blue sequins sewn in the shape of heart - the symbol representing the Vodou loa of love and beauty.

‘You know a lot about Haiti,’ he said, as I identified the different, and very beautiful, vévés on the brightly coloured Vodou flags.

‘A little.’

‘How you know so much?’

‘Oh, I read a book about it once,’ I said as I shook his hand and thanked him.

By now we were incredibly hot and thirsty so I asked Jean if we could stop for a drink. He took us down another deserted street full of empty market stalls and piles of rubble, to a small wooden dwelling on the Rue de Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Two Haitians were seated at the one table, so Jean found three mismatched chairs and we sat around a large icebox and waited for the owner. After what seemed an age, she appeared from the darkness of her unlit dwelling and offered us a drink from the icebox. As we sipped our drinks, trying to ignore the foul smell drifting towards us from a treacle-coloured stream of sewage trickling down the street a couple of metres away, she disappeared to cook a meal for her other customers.

 ‘I take you to see the view,’ Jean said as we handed over the gourdes to the owner who, judging by her dripping hair, had somehow found the time to wash it. ‘Best view in Haiti. I have a friend who has a car.’

The car was a battered Suzuki jeep with doors that would only open from the outside, apart from the rear left door that didn’t open at all. It had a cracked windscreen, no suspension, no horn, no radio (for the first few days, at least) no indicators (so if we turned left, Rico used his hand, if we turned right he just went … ) and, as we were to discover a few days later, no second gear. We filled up at a petrol station and bought Jean another beer, then slowly made our way up the hill, through Pétionville, to the high point of Boutilliers. The view of the city below was, indeed, breathtaking.

‘Riot!’ Jean grinned and pointed to a plume of smoke spiralling up into the air from the Bel Air district, which we’d left about half an hour earlier.

Simon and I exchanged looks. ‘Burning tyres?’ I asked.

Jean nodded. And tear gas we learned later but only one injury, a man who’d strayed into the protestors path and had a massive breezeblock dropped on his head. Ouch!

On our way down the hill we stopped in Pétionville to take pictures of the Jalousie slum on the mountainside, a vast expanse of rainbow coloured breezeblock homes. The facades had been painted purple, pink, yellow, blue and green in 2013, partly as a makeover and partly as homage to the Haitian painter, Prefete Duffat’s “cities in the skies”. It may look like a painting but the houses in Jalousie don’t have a water system and the residents sometimes have to fight for water at the few distribution points. Sanitation is also a problem for the almost vertical neighbourhood, where narrow stairways and alleys link the houses.

There was a sudden noise of car horns blaring and a cavalcade of some twenty vehicles with motorbike outriders began whizzing past us.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked.

‘The President,’ said Jean. ‘He has resigned. This is his farewell tour.’

And there he was, Michel Martelly, hanging out the open window of a car waving to … well, hardly anyone actually. His bodyguards followed, also hanging out of windows, then supporters on motorbikes, wearing bright pink T-shirts with Je Suis Martelly emblazoned across the front, and armed policeman in the back of land cruisers and pick-up trucks .

After that excitement we had a very late lunch in the very posh Karibe hotel, which seemed wrong somehow but Jean was keen. We returned to the Plaza (for the third time that day), but the tickets for the next two days still hadn’t arrived.  Tired but exhilarated we made a beeline for the Oloffson bar. While sipping our rum punch Richard Morse appeared.

‘I do know Jean,’ he said. ‘He looks after one of my regulars. A guy called Stephen Davenport.’

It was a name we’d hear a lot over the next few days.