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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Dominican Republic & Haiti: Voodooing around the Island of Hispaniola

The island of Hispaniola, or the "Spanish Island", was so-named by Christopher Columbus when he discovered the island in 1492, during his first voyage to the New World. Today, this second largest of the Caribbean islands is home to two countries: Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic ("DR") on its eastern two-thirds and French-and-Creole-speaking Haiti on the western-third of the island.

DR prides itself as a proud heir of Spanish heritage (despite mixed African, Indian and European ancestry), the home of many winners of world beauty pageants, great beaches, baseball and great cigars. Haiti is the first black republic in the world, created in the wake of the only successful slave rebellion against colonial powers. The country, unfortunately, has in recent decades being plagued by political instability and is today the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Even then, for all its poverty and instability, Haiti – famous for its enigmatic vodou religion and exotic art forms - has perhaps among the richest cultures among countries in the Western Hemisphere.

I flew to Santo Domingo, capital of DR, from Venezuela. DR is the most touristy country in the Caribbean. 3 million tourists visit DR every year. Clearing DR immigration was straight forward and simple, and the country has a fantastic tourist infrastructure that makes everything easy for the traveler.

In Santo Domingo, I put up at the Foreigners Club Hotel at the edge of the UNESCO-listed Colonial Zone. The hotel is an art deco building in a local neighbourhood of 1960s houses, in a style that reminded me of Miami Beach. Formerly known as Casa New Yorker, this is a delightful place whose guests are largely Bohemian minded or semi-retired Americans who stay here for months, enjoying Dominican cigars and cheap, good Presidente beer, and getting to know local women.

Santo Domingo has an amazing range of architectural styles, ranging from Renaissance Gothic to modernist/art deco and even pseudo-fascist/socialist functionalist. Walk along the streets of Colonial Zone on a weekend afternoon, and you would hear loud merengue and classical music. And you would have locals inviting you to join them for a beer or a session of meringue dance.

The crown of the Colonial Zone is the First Cathedral of the Americas, surrounded by many other delightful smaller churches and convents, as well as palaces and mansions. Most of these are of Romanesque, Renaissance, Moorish-Mudejar and Gothic styles contemporary of the Spanish colonial period of Dominican history. It was from Santo Domingo that Christopher Columbus and his brother ruled the new Spanish Empire as Viceroy, and where the first riches of the New World were accumulated before dispatch to the Spanish court in Seville. It was these architectural wonders that earned Santo Domingo its UNESCO World Heritage inscription.

One, however, should not ignore other architectural gems. Apart from art deco buildings such as the Foreigners Club Hotel, one should also visit the Columbus Lighthouse (Faro a Colon). Although it was built in 1992, it was first designed in 1929 during the Trujillo dictatorship, along the lines of the then popular Fascist-Stalinist Functional architecture, and look absolutely like a Soviet transplant although it commemorates 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery and evangelization of the Americas".

Inaugurated by then Dominican President Balaguer, Pope John Paul II and King Juan Carlos of Spain, some estimated that as many as 50,000 slum dwellers had to be moved and US$100 million was spent for the project. The power that it consumes when fully switched on (thus able to project the shape of a cross on the skies over Santo Domingo) is so demanding that it would cause black-outs across the surrounding areas of Santo Domingo. The building was designed in 1929 by a young British architect via an international competition organized by the then Dominican dictator General Trujillo, who probably loved those massive concrete blocks reminiscent of architecture typical of Stalinist-Fascist regimes of the era.

At the heart of the complex was an elaborate marble structure enclosing the supposed remains of Christopher Columbus, guarded by a Dominican armed sailor in ceremonial naval blue-white uniform. He rests in a room nearby and rushes to attention whenever visitors come (which is not a lot of the time). After photos are taken of him, he relaxes and retreats back to his room. Interestingly, there are two other claimants to the tombs of Columbus: The cathedrals of Seville, Spain and of Havana, Cuba. Historians and forensic scientists had performed DNA test on the remains in Seville and concluded that those in Seville were mostly likely those of the great explorer. The Dominicans had refused to open their Columbus tomb and the Cuban tomb was considered least likely and was not investigated at all. Whatever the truth, I had visited the tombs of Columbus in Seville and Havana, and this visit to Santo Domingo ensures that I have at least covered all possibilities!

Two corridors of exhibition rooms on the southern side of the complex contain exhibits on the cultures and history of selected countries of the Old World and the New World, the latter including indigenous cultures destroyed by the arrival of the Europeans. These dusty exhibits were of mixed quality and were donated by governments of the countries concerned.

The whole complex appeared grey and worn. Only the ground floor was occupied and the other nine floors were not opened to the public. There were few visitors, even on a Sunday, which explained why the staff and naval guards there appeared a little bored. I asked a few Dominicans and none have been there before. What a white elephant!

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Barely an hour after I checked into a room next to the reception at the Foreigners Club Hotel, Juan, the Jamaican-born receptionist cum manager of the hotel knocked on my door hysterically. What happened? The mafia after me? Or the police searching for drugs? No, a pale-faced Juan announced to me the death of Michael Jackson. Juan was shocked and looked devastated. When I walked around Santo Domingo that afternoon, I saw many glued to the persistent images of the superstar on TV.

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Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled from 1930 to 1961 under various guises, has to be one of the most megalomaniacal rulers in history. He gave himself many titles, among them, Generalisimo, El Jefe ("The Chief"), First Teacher, First Doctor, First Journalist of the Republic, Benefactor of the Fatherland, Chief Protector of the Working Class and Genius of Peace. He had statues of himself built everywhere and vehicle plates spotted the slogan "Viva Trujillo". Santo Domingo was renamed Ciudad Trujillo and a huge electric sign proclaiming "God and Trujillo" was erected and lit up in the capital. His supporters even had him nominated Nobel Peace Prize though the recommendation did not advance very far.

The many honours were even extended to his family members. According to Wikipedia, "His daughter Angelita was designated "queen" of the 1955 "International Fair of Peace and Fraternity of the World," a pompous event that cost US$30 million. Fair organizers declared Trujillo's semi-literate wife María Martínez a 'writer and philosopher'."

One of his most arrogant moves was to demand that the church declare him "Benefactor of the Church," a title last conferred on Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1167. The dictator mobilized mass parades and passionate letters to the press but the church resisted, but only barely, and tried to placate him by saying that they are sure, however, that "God, the infallible recompenser, will not let merit go unrewarded."

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I also visited Santo Domingo's Chinatown, which was just north of the UNESCO-listed Colonial Zone: Centred around the stretch of Avenida Duarte bounded by the streets of Avenida Mexico, Jacinto de la Concha, Avenida Mella and Calle José Martí. According to a report in the Listin Diario newspaper, "there are at least 40 Chinese-owned businesses in the area, including restaurants, laundries, beauty salons, video clubs, furniture stores, supermarkets, and pensions, primarily occupied by Chinese residents. The Dragon House Restaurant, on Avenida Duarte, about 50 meters from Avenida México, is a popular outing for middle class and even upscale families on Sundays."

According to DR1.com: "The first recorded mention of a Chinese presence in the Dominican Republic was in 1864 during the War of the Restoration, with references to a man named "Pancho el Chino," who fought in the War. There are also reports that a businessman named Gregorio Riva brought a handful of Chinese laborers over from Cuba to make bricks and quicklime in the Cibao region. This group of Chinese immigrants eventually built warehouses in Samana, Yuna and Moca. By 1870 the Chinese migrants had built the cemetery in Moca."

A large influx of Chinese came during the American occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916-20, when Chinese came over to take part in the rapid economic expansion that resulted from the occupation. DR1.com says that "by 1920 there were a total of 255 Chinese residents…(historian] Bordas highlighted the honor with which the Chinese businesses carried themselves and added that this was to the benefit of small Dominican business."

Chinese immigration continued throughout the 20th century, but the next major influx occurred in the 1980s-1990s when new immigration laws allowed residency upon investment in either a local property or business. This led to a new influx of Mainland Chinese, many of whom bought apartments in the fashionable neighbourhood of Avenida Anacaona, as my friend, Esther, said. I was also told that although large megamarket chains have everything, it's the Chinese neighbourhood supermarkets that have the freshest vegetables and personalized services. Esther told me as we visited one of these in her neighbourhood that the family that runs this particular supermarket have been in Dominican Republic for over 30 years and their children study in the American School and speak good English.

According to DR1.com, "Although no official census has been made, there are estimates of about 15,000 people of Chinese origin living in the DR and this number could be much higher if the number of mixed heritage Chinese-Dominicans is counted. Chinese Dominicans have made great strides in the DR. Jose Chez Checo was former President of the Dominican Academy of History and historian and writer Dr. Mu Kien Adriana Sang has also contributed greatly to Dominican culture."

Two traditional Chinese gateways guard the entrances to Santo Domingo's Chinatown along Avenida Duarte, one with the plaque that says "四海为家" (Home everywhere) and the other says "天下为公" (Justice in the world – quotation from Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen'). Shops in Chinatown sell general merchandise mostly imported from China. There were also a few Chinese restaurants that were not open when I walked through the area. Hence I could not verify if they sell authentic Chinese food, or were they the cheap generic pica pollo Chinese eateries found all over Dominican Republic that sell deep fried chicken and other meat, plus bastardised Dominican interpretation of Chinese cuisine. At the eastern end of Chinatown, there was also a small pavilion with a statue of Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy. The street leading to it was lined with stone statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Later that day, I visited a pica pollo near my hotel where I ordered a box of rice with chicken and vegetables for only D$100 (just under US$3), which was cheap by Dominican standards. I tried to speak Mandarin to the lady proprietor and her pretty daughter, but they did not seem to understand me. Instead, she spoke to me in Spanish. I suppose they must belong to the older group of Chinese-Dominicans and not the later group of Mainland Chinese that came in recent decades.

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I got to know a twice-divorced American IT engineer in his late 40s from Cincinnati, who was spending one month at the Foreigners Club Hotel. He walked around with unbuttoned shirt and spent time smoking cigars, leaving a terrible smell at the narrow corridors of the hotel. He had lived in the DR some time ago, for 2 years. "Living cost is low here," he reckoned, and then blinked his eyes. "And besides, the local girls love Gringos". Joe had another sip of the beer can he held in his left hand. He reminded me of the tribe of his kind that I had come across in bars in Bangkok's Patpong area and in Manila. Unwanted or jaded in their home country, they cruise the Third World for cheap beers and friendly girls looking for foreign husbands.

Joe married a local girl with whom he signed a pre-nuptial agreement and then brought her to the US. Within two years, however, she got her green card and wanted to leave. She wanted more than just love and a modest regular pay-check he earned, but he argued that she had only 2 pesos in her pocket when they first met in DR. Times have changed was her reply. So, he emphasized to me, "Never trust a Dominican woman. Or any Dominican man for anything – they would even sell their daughters." Of course, he would not tell me if he was alcoholic, or if he was a wife-beater. Domestic disputes are often complex and a hotel lobby conversation was not meant to turn into a serious analysis into long-past rights and wrongs.

A few days later, when I walked into the lobby and found him with a young Dominican lady and a girl, he said to me, "that's my future ex-wife and her daughter" And both of us laughed.

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Dominican Republic has a complex relationship with Haiti with whom the country shares a common island in the Caribbean. Dominicans see themselves as proud heirs of Spanish traditions while Haitians see themselves as descendants of valiant African freedom-fighters who rose against European slave-owners. In 1822, barely nine weeks after the Dominicans declared independence from a French-occupied Spain, the Haitian army marched in and ruled the country with an iron arm for the next 22 years. Freedom came in 1844 when Dominican patriots led by Juan Pablo Duarte captured Santo Domingo and chased the Haitians out. Since then, the Dominicans have always feared any renewed Haitian incursion, so much so that they invited the Spanish back to rule in 1861 (though the latter were eventually expelled in 1865).

"They want to take over us again and rule over the whole island of Hispaniola," said a Dominican businessman. "The Haitians have an offensive clause in its constitution that says Haiti is located on the western part of the island of Ayiti which implies that the whole island is theirs. This is nonsense. This is the island of Hispaniola."

According to the Haitians, Ayiti was the original name of the island given by the indigenous Taino Indians whom the Dominicans also claimed descent from. Hispaniola was the name given by Christopher Columbus who came later on. Whatever it is, the Dominicans have never felt comfortable with the Haitians and even the use of the word "Ayiti" is seen as an indication of dubious Haitian intentions.

DR may appear as a poor country to some of us, but its GDP per capita of US$8,000 is 8 times higher than Haiti's US$1000 (World Bank, 2008, PPP basis). It has been estimated that as many as 2 million Haitians work in DR, legally and illegally, thus accounting for 20% of DR's population. Past and present Dominican politicians have repeatedly warned about potential Haitian infiltration and takeover of Dominican soil. Trujillo, the Dominican dictator, even had 15,000 Haitians murdered in cold blood. Round-ups of Haitian illegals were conducted from time to time, but the Haitians always return. Like in everywhere else in the world, it is market forces that speak loudest. So long as there is work Dominicans would never do, there would always be poorer Haitians who would do the dirty job.

Dominicans are racists, say Haitian politicians. Aristide, former Haitian president, raged against what he alleged as Dominican racism, at the United Nations. Indeed, in private, many Dominicans I met did not mince their words when speaking about Haiti – the country is dirty; they bring diseases to pure, clean DR; they are a criminal people; they are savages; they have no conscience; they would kill you, even for a dollar, if you walk on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Western human rights activists urged sanctions against DR.

"That is pure rubbish!" a top Dominican lawyer rebutted. "Just step into any of the elite social and golf clubs in Santo Domingo, and you would find Dominicans of any skin colour – white, black, brown, yellow, whatever." She agreed there might be class discrimination but never any racial discrimination, and she was very unhappy that Western activists were making baseless allegations from their ivory towers. "If they are unhappy with us policing our borders and keeping out illegal immigrants, then they should allow millions of poor Haitians to enter the gates of New York, LA, London and Paris. It is the poor Dominican taxpayers who are paying the bills of sheltering these Haitians."

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I hopped onto a nice air-con coach with comfortable reclining seats to Port-au-Prince, capital of Haiti. I commenced the journey near the modern malls of Santo Domingo, and within a few hours found myself on a winding potholed track in the dry highlands full of low thorny bushes. Barefoot children ran after passing vehicles waving wildly for perhaps there was nothing better to do. Fishermen in tattered shirts pulled in their catch from the few inland lakes that populated this remote corner of DR. We passed through a few army checkpoints – the only I have seen in this tourist-friendly country – but they hardly gave any hassle to us. Their main aims, I believe, were to watch over Haitians coming the opposite way, towards the heart of DR.

We reached the border around 5pm. Situated on the banks of a large mountain lake, this beautiful desolate landscape could have been a high plateau lake in northern Chile if you release a few guanacos, llamas and alcapas around here. I had expected minor troubles but this had to be one of my easiest border-crossings. Like many Third World border crossings, this one was chaotic too, with vendors, long queues and confusing signboards, not to mention a dirty, rubbish-filled market in the no-men's land between the two countries. The immigration officials who shouted at local traders and rummaging through their bags and sacks, ignored tourists like me. One tall, dashing Haitian official, however, was friendly with a petite mulatto girl, even helping her to carry her two huge sacks of assorted merchandise, before sliding a slip with his telephone contacts into her palm. A genuine gesture of friendship, or an after-hours treat in exchange for future favours on the border?

Then it was an hour and a half downhill to that slum known as Port-au-Prince. The Haitian capital might have a noble-sounding name, but I have never seen a dirtier city anywhere in the world – even more so than Chittagong of Bangladesh which I visited in 2007. Municipal collection services appeared to be non-existent in this country where the government was hardly functioning. Indeed, only 12% of the electorate voted in the Senate elections a week ago, which threw doubt into the legitimacy of the current government backed by the US Government and the United Nations.

Port-au-Prince is a huge unplanned mess of shantytowns, narrow streets, chaotic traffic, sidewalk traders and women who carried loads on their heads West African style. The only redeeming things were perhaps the taps-taps - local passenger-converted trucks which have colourful motifs painted, mostly with themes which are related to religion, exoticism, sporting heroes and rap stars. I even saw Obama and Martin Luther King motifs on a few of the taps-taps.

I got off the bus at the terminal at Petonville, a wealthier suburb located on higher grounds overlooking Port-au-Prince. Even in this supposed refuge of local businessmen, diplomats and aid-workers, there was enough rubbish that would raise a few eye brows in other Third World cities, and taxi touts who almost came to brows over who had the right to ferry us to downtown Port-au-Prince. In a country with desperate levels of poverty, every dollar is worth fighting for.

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Over the new few days, I stayed at Hotel Oloffson, a graceful old mansion with Vodou ritual flags and "Haitian naïve" paintings with mysterious, enigmatic motifs, many of which have Vodou significance. These flags and paintings, at Olofson and the galleries I visited in Port-au-Prince depicted the most amazing themes and motifs that characterized the legends and psyche of the Haitian mind: women floating in the skies almost Marc Chargall-style, snakes swallowing their own tails, dogs with multiple heads, a mermaid on solid dry rock, a dismembered arm next to a long green snake, a tree of life coupled with a snake, spider and a cooking pot, a naked freed slave with a mirror, a heart with a knife stuck in the middle, monks and devils marching through a cemetery, a hooded man staring at a strange-looking dog, a Roman knight and Jesus-on-the-cross, unproportional trees that held up towns and villages, copulating couples looked over by men with bulls' heads.

On Thursday nights, the RAM band, headed by Richard A. Morse, Oloffson's American owner, rocked away in a unique musical form that combines electric rock and roll and Haitian-Vodou ritualistic tunes – he calls it "Vodou rock and roots". It is said that some of the musicians and members of the audience regularly fall into trance, possessed by powerful Vodou gods attracted by the music.

The Oloffson is an amazing hotel that has been a witness to many episodes of Haitian history. According to Wikipedia, "The hotel was constructed in the late 19th century as a private home for the Sam family. The head of a prestigious and influential family in Port-au-Prince, Tirésias Simon-Sam was president of Haiti from 1896 to 1902. The mansion was built by Tirésias's son, Demosthenes Simon Sam. The Sams lived in the mansion until 1915, when their cousin Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was selected from among a group of powerful politicians to assume the post of president, the fifth president in five years. Guillaume would be president for a scant five months, however, before being torn to pieces by an angry mob. United States President Woodrow Wilson, concerned that the Haitian government might be seized by Rosalvo Bobo, who was thought to be sympathetic to the Germans, ordered the United States Marine Corps to seize Port-au-Prince. The occupation would eventually extend to the entire nation of Haiti."

Subsequently, the mansion was leased to a Swedish sea captain named Werner Gustaf Olofsson, who turned it into a hotel. Thus began the legendary history of the hotel as the hotel of choice for famous writers and people of the arts, especially in those days when Haiti was a popular holiday destination for the rich and famous. Many of the rooms in the hotel were named after the renowned who came here, including Graham Greene, James Jones, Charles Addams, and Sir John Gielgud. My room was named after Alvin Ailey, a renowned Afro-American choreographer and activist. In fact, Graham Greene used the hotel as his setting for the novel, The Comedians, in which he called the hotel Trianon. In the book, he described the increasing helplessness of a hotel owner as Haiti descended into dictatorship and cruelty, and of how he and his friends crossed path with arms traders, rebels, spies and diplomats. According to Wikipedia, the late Haitian dictator, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier (1907-1971), hated the book so much that he called Graham Greene, "a liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon, unbalanced, sadistic, perverted, a perfect ignoramus... lying to his heart's content... the shame of proud and noble England... a spy... a drug addict... a torturer."

In 1987, after years of dilapidation and neglect – the result of years of economic stagnation following the dictatorship of the Duvaliers ("Papa and Baby Doc") – American Princeton graduate and aspiring rock and roll star, Richard Morse, took over the lease of Oloffson. According to a legend, this happened after he was offered the hotel for US$20 after a drunken night party with a Vodou priest. He renovated the place and installed modern conveniences. Once again, Hotel Oloffson has resumed its previous role as a grand old hotel of the Caribbean, like Raffles is for Singapore, albeit in a small way.

Twenty years have elapsed, together with an endless cycle of political and economic crisis in Haiti. The hotel looked somewhat tired. Paint was peeling off, the air-conditioning noisy, the beds and furniture looked tired and the ancient plumbing sounded louder than it should. Perhaps, the Oloffson needs an international chain with the financial resources to inject cash and allow it to realize its ultimate potential.

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At Olofsson, I bumped into Leah Gordon, who wrote the first edition of Lonely Planet Dominican Republic and Haiti, and who had monitored Haiti for many years. She also promoted Haitian art and brought Haitian artists to the West, and made documentaries about the country. She is passionate about the country – "You must visit the artists, especially the ones known as the "Grand Rue Artists" in your book." Leah must have known that tourists are visiting the country, though she almost made me hit the ceiling by saying she was surprising to see me here as a tourist, and that the country should give me a welcoming ceremony.

I also met a group of Peace Corp volunteers helping local farmers with fruit trees, a missionary anxious to conquer the country for his god, and a tight-lipped French businessman secretive about his mission here. I had beer, also here at Olofsson, with an idealistic young American photo-journalist trying to empower young Haitians through football, whilst investigating what he saw as big business oppression and economic enslavement of the Haitian people through the development of previously non-existent local dependency on imported US rice (to the extent that tiny Haiti became the 4th largest market for US rice, after with larger countries such as Japan, China and Indonesia), and the widely reported (though now largely forgotten) Creole pig debacle. Creole pigs are an indigenous variety of pigs which are known to be resilient to the local climate and terrain, and require little artificial animal feed. In the 1980s, however, the World Bank & USAID forced Haiti to cull the hardy creole pigs due to the African swine fever virus, and replaced them with pink American pigs which need expensive US-made feed and special housing. The episode had led to the destruction of the Haitian pig industry, increased the cost of meat in the country, enhanced Haitian dependency on imported American pigs and aggravates the poverty of Haiti.

I met Richard Morse, owner of Olofsson, on my final evening at Olofsson. When Morse knew I would not be staying on Thursday night, he said my grandchildren would be horrified that I had come to the Caribbean but missed the RAM Thursday concert. I responded that that would be another reason for me to return to Haiti.

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Is there a dirtier and more chaotic city than Port-au-Prince? Piles of rubbish everywhere, even in the heart of the main market. People, people everywhere. Crowds, people shouting loudly, vehicles horning ceaselessly, the ever-pervading rotting smell, sticky sweat, beggars everywhere, touts, persistent guides following you for a hundred meters proclaiming eternal friendship…Colour, bright colours, exotic, sensual erotica, mysterious voodoo art, loud Caribbean music, statues of glorious heroes, bright colourful flowers in the park, smiling faces, exuberant painted passenger pickups often with motifs of either Jesus or raggae and pop stars (aren't they similar in some ways)…welcome to Haiti!

I walked from Oloffson to Champs de Mars, the big square in downtown Port-au-Prince. Monuments to Haiti's four revolutionary heroes are scattered in this huge square, each with its own mini-park: Louverture, Christophe, Dessalines and Petion. I walked through the area – many unemployed men were standing around with nothing to do. A few shouted at me as I took pictures of the monuments. Quite frightening. I had to walk very quickly, do what I wanted and then leave quickly. I also snapped pictures of the Bicentennial Monument – the ugly half built structure resembling an oil-rig started by Aristide – they call it Aristide's folly.

I visited the National Pantheon Museum, which is not only a grave site with remains of the country's independence war heroes, but also a fantastic museum about the country's history and struggle for freedom. The entrance ticket of 100 gourdes also included a guided tour – excellent English speaker. Also took photos of the Unknown Slave and others in front of the beautiful whitewashed National Palace.

Then I went to the Saint Trinite Episcopal Church, famous for portraying biblical stories in Haitian style, complete with black people as the disciples of Jesus. Once again, I encountered yet another faux guide. Very annoying as they follow you despite calls against it. This time, I got the church people to tell that guy to go away.

After this, I walked towards the Marche de Fer (Iron Market). The place was horrendously crowded. Sometimes impossible to move because vehicles got stuck in the narrow roads which were hammed in on both sides by crowds. And there was lots of rubbish, some piling sky-high. I wondered how people could live with such dirt in their backyards or on the road in front of them, not to mention the mud, pools of water, open sewerage and more. I struggled to find the Post Office and then gave up. It was simply too unpleasant to walk around this area. Not only was it dirty and messy, I could hardly have felt secure with the crowds and the many annoying touts.

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Vodou (or Voodooism) is the most prevalent religion in Haiti. It is often said that 80% of the Haitian population is Roman Catholic but 100% are Vodou worshippers. Vodouism has its roots in various traditional West African faiths, in particular the forms practiced in Benin which I visited last year (see http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Benin for my 2008 visit to the spiritual centres of Vodouism). It is a faith rooted in the belief of a supreme deity (known as the Great Master) and numerous other lesser deities. Its rituals often involve possession of the followers by the deities, in manner not too different from the Christian speaking in tongues, Hokkien-Taoist tankis and other forms of shamanistic ceremonies. However, vodouism is often misunderstood and European propagandists had deliberately misinterpreted Vodou rituals as satanic during the Haitian War for Independence. Hollywood had gone further to exaggerate the black magic aspects of vodouism, in particular, zombies and darker deities such as the Baron and his wife, Maman Brigitte.

In Port-au-Prince are a few contemporary artists who specialize in using recycled or abandoned materials to produce installation and smaller art pieces based on a mix of traditional vodouist symbols and mythology as well as contemporary political, social, sexual and cultural themes. With an artist-guide, Milfort Bruno (who runs a shop outside Hotel Oloffson – US$20 for his service), I visited three of these artists, Andre Eugene, Celeur Jean Herard and Guyodo Klere, in their ramshackle huts in a shantytown along the Grand Rue. Yes, a rather nasty looking, dirty, muddy shantytown which plays host to these artists. We got onto taxi publiques (50 gourde each) and off we went to the artists workshops which I would never go on my own given their location.

What I was to discover were amazing explosive stuff. Greeting me right at the pathway leading to Eugene's workshop was a 5 meter statue of a Vodou deity made of dismantled car body fitted with an enormous spring-loaded penis. His workshop was full of all sorts of stylized statues of not only Vodou gods but also political figures, including the likeness of Osama bin Laden – all made of wood, discarded furniture, tyre and car parts. Step into his inner workshop and one finds skulls and extremely freaky stuff all over. Eugene picked up a crowned skull in one hand and said, "this skull is real," then pointing to a few others around the room, "those are real too."

I tried to look nonchalant, "how do you get real skulls?"

"In Haiti, it's not too difficult to get such things in cemetery," Eugene said, smiling. I had a close look around this room and next. Apart from decorated or dressed skulls and skeletons, there were various eerie-looking dolls and figurines of Vodou deities and mythological creatures. Eugene pointed to a scary looking figure with a ghoulish-looking face on its torso, "that's the Baron." He was referring to Baron Samedi, the Vodou Master of the Dead and Keeper of Cemeteries. Pointing to a doll with pale face, not dissimilar to those little demon-possessed ones in movies such as the Exorcist, "that's Baron's wife." Maman Brigitte is the Baroness' proper name and the couple are a much feared couple in the Vodou pantheon of deities and known to be popular among practitioners of black magic.

I do not understand Vodouism well enough and cannot comment on the significance of these deities, but I won't be surprised that Vodouism, like many religions, have manifestations of both the good and evil, which means that one cannot exist without the other. And Vodouism, like other religions, teaches its believers to do good and avoid evil. The existence of a fearful deity highlights the importance of doing good.

Even then, it was certainly a very freaking experience, surrounded by such frightful art pieces in a rather dim room. I asked Eugene if the statues of these deities have spiritual powers. "No," he said, "as they were mere art objects, but they could be used for religious ceremonies and would assume spiritual powers once that occurs. Do you want to buy something and display at home? Such as a statue of the Baron and his madam? They are good in protecting homes against evil."

I declined his offer politely. Eugene and his fellow artists have done well in the last decade. They have appeared in international exhibitions in the US, UK and continental Europe. Eugene asked if I could provide them with Asian connections. If you are interested, check out their websites at www.atis-rezistans.com

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I was introduced to Jacqueline Labrom, a British lady in her sixties who have settled in Haiti the past 12 years. She first came to Haiti in 1973 to help train girl guide leaders. Then she came here on and off, and eventually moved here for good. Haiti is home now for her. She even assisted in the country's tourism ministry and drafted the current liberal entry policy – only 4 countries need visas to enter Haiti. Apparently, the Haitians call her National Treasure for she knows the country very well.

Jacqueline was passionate about Haiti and was defensive about the country's reputation: "I can't stand it when they kept saying Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. We were relieved when Nicaragua recently took over this undesired title. Why can't they consider the fact that Haiti is one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere terms of culture?"

She also said in Papa Doc's days, the country was number one in Caribbean tourism and Haitians taught Jamaica and DR how to do it. We were to visit a retired American professor's home in Jacmel – he bought this place in 1973 – an era when Haiti was a mainstream destination. It was safe for a lady to go anywhere that time and the country was orderly. People had enough to eat and everything was fine so long as one avoids politics.

We drove 2.5hrs to Jacmel on the southern coast, passing through small towns (roadside stalls selling some of the 106 varieties of Mangoes Haiti has), green mountains and winding roads. Pretty scenery. Jacmel itself has surprisingly clean streets – Jacqui said Jacemelians have a lot of civic pride. The city has very nice New Orleans type buildings with metal grills. We also visited handicraft shops and the crowded Iron Market. I bought a US$5 walking stick that has motif of the Vodou snake spirit, Dumballah, over man and woman faces. Then we drove to a hotel about 5km outside Jacmel where we had lunch. We had nice lobsters about 500 gourdes. The hotel was located at a pretty semi-enclosed cove and a private beach of fine, white sand.

We drove back to Port-au-Prince, on to Bel-Air area to visit an elderly hougan (vodou priest) who was also a famous flag maker. We took some nice pictures of the many ritual Vodou flags the hougan had made. The priest looked frail as he had a stroke recently but he was very welcoming. The Vodou flags looked colourful and shiny-bright – they were sewn with tiny "buttons" that reflected light. Cost about US$25 each but I won't risk upsetting the spiritual balance at home by buying them for internal display.

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Cap Haitien, currently Haiti's second largest city, was once a capital of the French colony of Saint Domingue and one of the richest cities in the French empire. Plantation owners, flushed with the wealth generated from sugar and coffee plantations, built grand mansions and public buildings in what was once known as Queen of the Antilles. This wealth, however, arose from the cruelties of slave labour – 40,000 whites ruled over 450,000 African slaves in Saint Domingue.

In 1791, in a plantation not far from Cap Haitien, a slave cum vodou priest, Boukman, presided over a vodou ceremony in which the Europeans and their god were denounced and the flag of rebellion raised. Within weeks, the plantations of Sainte Domingue were up in flames and one of the greatest slave uprisings in history took place. Although Boukman was soon captured and executed by the French, the rebellion went on for another 13 years, till Napoleon's forces were defeated at the Battle of Vertieres, and Haiti became the first independent black republic in the world.

After the death of Haiti's first emperor, Dessalines, the nation broke into half. The north was ruled by another hero of the independence war, General Henri Christophe, when declared himself king. Worried about the possibility of another French invasion, he built a magnificent castle – the Citadelle – on top of a mountain near his grand palace, Sans Souci, not far from Cap Haitien. The castle, however, never saw any French attack. In 1920, Henri Christophe suffered a stroke and worried about the possibility of getting overthrown and humiliated, he shot himself with a silver bullet instead.

I flew to Cap Haitien on Tortug Air, a domestic Haitien carrier. I checked out Beau Rivage Hotel but decided I didn't like it. I went to the best hotel in town, Roi Christophe, instead. US$90 with a pool. Unfortunately, it was only after check-in that I discovered the hotel's internet was down, which was a pity for the price I paid. Cap was a fairly sleepy place. Most of its streets were not paved and there were pools of waters and open sewerage everywhere. This was a fairly dirty city by most standards anywhere else in the world, though significantly cleaner than Port-au-Prince. It was hard to believe that this was once the busiest harbour and port in all Caribbean. In fact, less than 100km to the northwest of here lies Tortuga Island, once the key pirate port of all Caribbean, where buccaneers feasted and partied between raids of Spanish ports, for fleets that carried gold, silver and other treasures of the New World to Europe.

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Jacqueline's local contact picked me up at Roi Christophe the next day and we set off for the Citadelle with an American family of diplomats. This day trip would cost US$80 for me. If I had done it alone, the travel agency would charge me US$260. Of course, one could organize the whole trip alone by public transport at much lower prices, but one would be subject to the typically aggressive Haitian touting. At this stage of my journey, I was a little lazy and decided to take the easy way out instead.

It was a 45min drive to Milot, a quiet small town at the foothills of the Citadelle. We passed the ruins of Sans Souci – the enormous dome of the church at the entrance of the palace obviously dwarfed any other building in town. It dominated the skyline of the town like a bosom of a fat lady. We drove past the monumental ruins to head for the hill track leading to the Citadelle. It was 7km or so of winding hill track until a village at mid-level, then we switched to horses which were being managed by local assistants who "walked" the horse up the hill. There it was the Citadelle. Very impressive, perched up against the skies. I wonder how many people died in the tropical rain forests in order to built this enormous complex. Once into it, however, one would notice that the whole structure, though monumental in dimensions, was rather crude and vulgar – not surprising as it was built by an ex-slave revolutionary-king. From up there, one could see the surrounding areas – even Cap Haitien 25km away. We walked along the ramparts to admire the panoramic view – those with height phobia are certainly not advised to come!

Then we went downhill back to Milot where we visited Sans Souci ruins, followed by lunch at Lakou Lakay Cultural Centre. Nice goat Creole style plus rice and beans. The guestbook had one Singaporean – Mengyang Sun – who visited on 29 May. I wonder who that was.

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I departed for the British territory of Turks and Caicos Islands the next day. My taxi to the airport was late by 15 minutes but we got to airport in time. The arrangement with Air TCI was that they would send the ticket to Cap Haitien the day before. I was worried that might be messed up but it turned out fine. The unexpected problem was that a Haitian immigration officer suspected I might be an illegal using fake passport. He examined my passport in great detail and even checked the authenticity of the various stamps on my passports. He even tested me on my personal particulars to see if I answered them correctly. He asked if I was going to the US, to which I said I would transit the US and did not need any visa for the US anyway. He seemed unconvinced whatever I said. I was asked to stand aside and was the last person to board the plane. I had to insist that he hurried up or I might miss the flight. He stamped the passport only very reluctantly. I thought he might be fishing for a bribe but I did not want to suggest that, for that might get me into bigger trouble.

With that, I returned to the English-speaking world…

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