Saturday 22 February 2014

grandeur and decay

To see the weathered grandeur of the crumbling buildings is somehow a fascinating picture.  Stage and film sets recreate this kind of worn and used authenticity.  It has much more character than the new.  The old and ramshackled seem more established, somehow; loved and treasured.

The building that housed the 32 orphan children was grand and epic in its day.  The view from the first floor reception room had striking views of the bay of Jérémie.  In front was a huge lawn that had suffered in recent years from an obvious lack of care.  There were high walls and occasional iron wrought gates that must have provided access in days past, and now this function replaced by the huge characteristic gates to the side of the property.

Staying here was an interesting experience and though the building is in serious decline, it still has a grand feel to it that could be one day restored to its former glory.  The decorative iron screens protected the residents from unwanted visitors whilst giving them a cool breeze at night.  The views are stunning, and the sea, with its electric blue hue, was strangely majestic and beautiful to watch.  Only slight movements of the distant ocean and the occasional clouds breaking the sprawling sky.  At night there is no light pollution and so the night sky we had already grown accustomed to was now an explosive array of light.  Pin pricks of intense shards of diamond lights enveloping the whole sky from one side to the other.

The journey back to Port-au-Prince started at 5am on Friday.  We stopped in Les Cayes for lunch and then this would get us comfortably back to the convent in the capitol early afternoon.  Highway construction - performed on a military scale, by the Dominican construction company Estrella - regular closes the narrow, inadequate track which is the only way to Jérémie from the east.  Vast pathways are being chiselled through the gorgeous hilltops, providing necessary and safe access to this coastal haven.  As the road peters out towards Les Cayes there are numerous villages along the way - market towns with roadside markets that bring the passing traffic to almost standstill as they crawl through the sellers and buyers.  The colour and din are magnificent; with exotic fruits and wild animals purchased for a few Gourds, the babel of trading and greeting in sounds as weird, as puzzling and unfamiliar, as the cackling live poultry, terrified goats and lines of fruits too kaleidoscopic and alien to name.  A clutch of yellow and green peppers - twelve or so - for fifty cents.  The smells are like soup and wood and hot coals . . intoxicating and mind numbing . . then the smiles and the calling out to us in the car.  Sellers flock to the open window like seagulls.  Women and children carrying colours from the earth and trees.  The sun bearing down on the car and our departure from this land in three days tugging at me.  The clouds are complicit in all this too.  The sky open and constant and will be here waiting when I come again.


Our trip to Jérémie was planned by the sisters.  Their orphanage in the far reaches of this western district is arguably their most austere and remote location.  The orphanage houses 32 children - all girls - between the ages of 4 and 15.  Most are 4,5 and 6 years-old.  I hadn't been to Jérémie before although I had visited Cayes and Cavaillon - close by - in the west of Haiti.  There are two schools and another orphanage and these had received toys and clothes in previous visits from the UK.

The road to Jérémie is steep, rugged and broken, dangerous in parts and slow.  There are huge diggers and excavators on the highest reaches preparing a new road as part of Haiti's redevelopment.  Perhaps funded by the worldwide response to the earthquake.  We had three days in this part of Haiti.  

Jérémie is cut off from the rest of the country and can only be accessed by these mountain roads from Cavaillon just to the east, and the steep hills to the south.  They are difficult and treacherous in parts to pass but they provide the most stunning views of this fantastic country.  Multiple hills coloured with deep blues and purples as they recede away as far as the eye can see.  Deep caverns and gorges thick with rich tropical trees and bush.  The views were like fantasy; the depths and great sweeping valleys were like nothing I'd seen before.  Scenes that leave you feeling so insignificant.  God's country, God's blessing: God's creation.

The centre of Jérémie is dusty, tired and neglected.  I could see instantly Haiti's former ' glory' in the bleached woodwork. Jaded pastel colours and type - hand scripted logos and names.  The architecture is ornate.  Wooden and concrete balustrades and columns festoon almost all the shop and house entrances.  They are worn and weathered.  And have long-needed renewal and modernisation but the town's economy and meagre resources have prevented its upkeep and development.  Gentrification is absent here and everywhere.  There are few cars.  Gardener's trikes are the standard means for communal and cheap public transport.  And mopeds for personal and more comfortable hire.  As for most of Haiti, the people here live hand to mouth and know little else.  They live in the dirt.  And their houses are makeshift and rickety.  The earthquake didn't shake the ground here but refugees did make it as far as Jérémie, where the sick and injured did receive help and aid.  A big relief ship came here.  On the way into town there are four impressive, US army bridges meant, I'm sure, as a temporary measures.  They still stand after 4-5 years.  They are crucial for access.  Other bridges are being built.  Work is slow and, thankfully, professional and fit to withstand the strong winds and rain that leashes Haiti every season. The wide, almost empty, river beds are a meeting place for many who come to wash and dry clothes and collect drinking water.  Large and colourful pieces of fabric are spread-eagled across the ground, on rocks, gravel, drying in minutes in the relentless daytime heat and sunlight.
Our accommodation was basic at the orphanage.  But as ever, the sisters there - two of them - were tireless in their own work and their efforts to feed us and make us comfortable.  There was no running water in the house, and it 
was supplied in large buckets by young workers carrying them from the well.  One for the loo and one for washing.  You soon get accustomed to the routine and cold water is the least of the problems.  The bugs are noisy at night - sometimes close to the bed - and rapid on their feet just as you step into the shower area.

Seeing the authentic buildings, shop fronts and homes of this particular part of Haiti; experiencing this separate and different coastal locality completes my picture of Haiti somehow.  I love them for their profound simplicity and aptitude.  Their competence and endurance is striking, and I admire them for making a success of living harmoniously and happily despite the many things they lack.