We reached Highway 2 without incident and headed for the mountains, the dry, rugged slopes stripped of so many trees. Jean proudly pointed out his sister’s house and the Rev. Stephen Davenport’s church (Stephen Davenport, a retired Epsicopalian minister, is a regular client of Jean’s. He’s worked in and visited Haiti since 1970, and is also a major supporter of Haiti’s National Orchestra). We passed small kays with tin roofs and marchandes selling mangos and Mandarin oranges, piled neatly in small wicker baskets on the roadside. Everything seems to take place on or beside the road: people socialise, play dominoes, cook, shine shoes, build cabinets, style hair, grind metal, fix cars, and repair electronic goods. It truly is the salon pèp – the living room of the people.
Sheltered in a pretty bay, Jacmel is built on three small hills, with its streets running down to the sea. It was far less frenetic than Port-au-Prince, despite it being busy with its famous Carnival parades. Having negotiated the hundreds of motorbike taxis on the outskirts of town, Jean took us to the Hotel Florita where we bought a drink. The original French-style house was built in 1881 when Jacmel was the richest town in Haiti, the main trade being coffee, grown by the peasants on their farms. As with all the other 19th Century houses, it is constructed of iron and tiles from Europe, and local mahogany. The Florita was converted into a hotel in 1999, although the house and the courtyard retain their original charm. When it came to paying for the drinks, the slightly eccentric American owner told us he didn’t have change because business was so slack. Michael, the affable guide Jean had organised, suggested he pay and that we settle up with him at the end of the day, an offer he repeated when we tried to buy some hand painted mats and a colourful metal gecko.
Jacmel also played a small role in the South American independence movement when, in 1816, Pétion played host to Simon Bolivar, hospitality that Bolivar returned by abolishing slavery after liberating his country. Michael showed us the brightly coloured cobbled promenade that runs the length of a disappointingly dirty beach, rebuilt by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, after the earthquake, as a belated thank you.
On the road to the coast the stunning wall mosaic, made by street kids out of salvaged material, was devised and partially paid for by an American charity, the Art Creation Foundation for Children (ACFFC), with financial contributions from the Jacmel tourist board and local businesses. We saw the ruins of the Iron Market (each city has one), which is soon to be rebuilt on a different sight, thanks to Dennis O’Brien (Digicel), who also funded the new market in Port-au-Prince. At the top of a steep lane we reached the neat and tidy Toussaint L’Ouverture Square and stopped opposite the Manoir Alexandre. This is the home of Hadriana, the most beautiful woman whoever lived in the town, who died at the altar on her wedding day, only to be revived as a zombi by a voodoo priest. Although many Haitians believe this to be a true story, Hadriana in all My Dreams, is a poem by René Depestre, one of Haiti’s most celebrated writers.
Jacmel is renowned for its art, particularly its large and elaborate papier mâché masks, which are worn during Carnival. We met the only female artist of the town and saw a whole range of masks including Michel Martelly and Aristide, lions, zebras, frogs and crocodiles, and a Chaloska (a horrible looking creature with big teeth based on the bloodthirsty general Charles Oscar). There was to be a procession later that day but sadly we would miss it because Rico didn’t want to risk driving through Carrefour in the dark. ‘We have a responsibility to keep you safe,’ explained Jean. Reassuring of him, I thought.
We’d now all warmed up considerably, so Jean took us to Colin’s Hotel, a pretty ochre-coloured building, for lunch. It overlooked the quay where a large ship that delivered tons and tons of pepe (second hand goods) was moored. After an hours wait (this seems to be the norm in Haiti), and after Jean and Simon had drunk several beers, my lobster (yes a whole one), Simon’s lobster stew, Jean’s goat stew and Rico’s sandwich arrived. I can honestly say that my lobster, which was served in a very delicate lemon and shallot sauce, was the freshest and most delicious I’ve ever eaten, and undoubtedly the least expensive too.
All too soon we were back in the car and on our way. Rico is a cautious driver but with night drawing ever closer, and the fear of Carrefour looming, he picked up his speed to a pleasant 50 kph, much to our delight. It was mighty cramped in the back seat.
There were more guests on the Oloffson verandah that evening, which was good to see, all of them tapping away at their laptops. Having had such a huge lunch we held back with supper but not the Rum Sours, and we sipped them slowly as Carnival blared into life in the streets below.