MARDI GRAS

We needn’t have worried. Jean was very pleased to see us, two sparkling dollar signs almost visible in his pupils. We shook hands, explained what we were doing and then set off, alone, with Rico. Having filled up with petrol, and having brought another metal gecko, Rico dropped us off at Pétionville.

‘Number. I give you,’ he said and pointed to his phone, his forehead concertinaed with concern. Clearly he didn’t think we’d last five minutes without Jean, but it was reassuring, all the same.

Stupidly we’d come without a map. Using Simon’s GPS app we tried to find our way to the Place Saint Pierre, in the heart of Pétionville. Within minutes we were swallowed up by a street market. There wasn’t an inch of space on the road not being used. There were stalls selling fruit and vegetables, shoes and household items. There were street vendors selling fritay, fried pork and fizzy drinks and others selling huge mounds of pepe (second hand clothes). Progress was slow as we tried to forge a way through and I was beginning to feel claustrophobic when I felt a tugging at my elbow. I looked down to see a cute little boy smiling at me. He rubbed his tummy.

‘Bonjou, Blan. Mwen grangou.’ He pointed to his mouth and held out his hand. ‘Monnen.’

Now I don’t speak Haitian Creole, but I did know what this meant – Hello, Foreigner. I’m hungry. Money - because the very same thing happened to Maddy in my book. Maddy gave them money. And it didn’t turn out well.

Sure enough, as with Maddy, several other street kids quickly joined him,
some of them a lot bigger and a lot less cute. Within seconds we were surrounded. The streets were beyond crowded. There was no way out. The boys were laughing. Sweat prickled my palms. I’ve stumbled into my own book, I thought, stealing a quick glance at Simon, who I could see was thinking the same. And as with Maddy, I felt a tugging at my heartstrings. Kids shouldn’t have to live on the streets.

No, I told myself sharply. You must ignore them. You know that.

Head up, eyes staring straight ahead, I marched purposefully forward. The boys (and Simon) followed, still yelling, still smiling (the timoun lari, not Simon), and then, at last, there was the square, a shiny beacon of orderliness in all the dirt and chaos. On sight of a couple of policeman guarding the entrance, the boys scattered. Relieved, we sat in the shade and regrouped.

Next stop, the supermarket. I needed a toothbrush and Simon needed something for his sneezes and cough – a reaction to the city’s filth and the thick black diesel fumes spewing out of a million exhausts. It was huge, clean and air-conditioned, stocked with everything and lots of it.

We crossed a bridge over a dried up river, bloated with rubbish and the all-too-familiar pigs, and took another, hugely expensive, taxi up to Boutilliers, to the Observatoire, the third best restaurant in Port-au-Prince according to Trip Advisor. We ordered lambi – conch (pronounced Conk) – which was delicious, and a glass of wine, and enjoyed 90 minutes of pure calm admiring the spectacular view.

Avoiding the gaggle of Haitians desperate to sell us something, we set off down the hill, the idea being we’d catch a local taxi on the Kenscoff road. This road was quiet and surprisingly clean, and the gated houses we passed were stylish and grand, the well-maintained gardens protected by walls laden with bougainvillaea. At the intersection of the Kenscoff road a youth, hanging out of a people carrier, seemed to beckon me. A taxi? I wondered, rushing towards him. Feeling a huge sense of accomplishment, we squeezed in amongst the other passengers, and arrived at Pétionville at a cost of a mere 15 gourdes (20p), the taxi stopping en route whenever someone wanted to get off. We changed at Pétionville and, by a stroke of luck, arrived at The Plaza.

Back at the Oloffson we changed into our lurid lime T-shirts, put on our wristbands and headed to the bar for a fortifying Rum Sour (the best in Haiti according to Sousa, the barman). As if by magic, Jean appeared, as was his habit. Never one to say no to a Rum Sour, he joined us for a quick one before escorting us to the Plaza, it being ‘too dangerous’ to walk on our own.

‘Leave your keys. Your phone. Everything,’ he said.

Carnaval was disappointing. Jean was right. The rich elite, annoyed by the poor majority’s disrespect for President Martelly, hadn’t stumped up the cash and there were very few floats. The hundreds and thousands of Haitians dancing in the street, many of whom who’d travelled miles to be there, didn’t seem to mind though. The hastily put together stands, that we’d watched being built and painted, creaked under the weight of partygoers and gigantic sound systems blaring music. Health and safety would have had a field day. We had to climb over the Plaza’s balcony to reach our stand but at least it was intact. The one next to ours had a gaping hole in the middle of it, around which people danced. A television crew was filming from a level beneath us. They had a lot of ‘filling’ to do because, in three hours, we saw only five floats and a few marching rara bands, which were fabulous but only left us wanting more. Three of these floats were enormous, as tall as the hotel and as wide as the road. They were covered in adverts for Digicel and were carrying famous Haitian bands, who sat at the front, singing, while their backing dancers and hangers-on gyrated around on the back. Last year a singer on top of the hip-hop group Barikad Crew’s float was shocked by high-voltage wires, hanging above the street. He survived but panic ensued when dozens of people jumped off the float to avoid being electrocuted. This created a stampede and at least 16 people were trampled to death in the street and 78 others injured. The final day of Carnival was cancelled and Evans Paul, the prime minister, declared three days of national mourning. Fortunately this year was incident free, although I did see three bright red stretchers being carried over the head of revellers.

We left about midnight. Smoke from the burning rubbish spiralled into the night sky from the open manholes as we walked up the hill, our feet sore after a day spent on the hoof.

But the gates to our hotel were locked and we, of course, had left our key at reception.

Great tip. Thanks a lot, Jean.

We rattled the gate. Yelled. But no one came. I figured we could climb over. So we did. Collecting our key from behind a deserted desk, we woke up a bemused security guard who had nodded off in the bar. We smiled at him, wished him goodnight, and hurried back to the Jorgen Leth bungalow, exhausted after a very busy day.