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A Feast for the Senses and Food for Thought

May 18, 2011

Morning in Pierre Payen is a noisy affair.  At first light all erupts into a cacophony of sound.  The roosters of the neighbourhood legion compete to be first to triumphantly herald the new dawn.  The community’s residents begin their day, often with loud exchanges.  On Route Nationale #1, off which our driveway runs, traffic picks up with the characteristic insistent blaring of horns.  Birds greet the day with enthusiasm, most noticeably crow-like creatures with harsh, raspy voices.

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Museum at Moulin sur Mer

On Sunday I visited another piece of Haiti’s history.  Our guests James and Ashley, the Rollings and I spent the afternoon at Moulin sur Mer at Montrouis (pronounced mō-Ē), formerly an 18thcentury sugar plantation and now a beach resort hotel.  The ruins of the plantation were totally recovered by the work of architect Gerard Fombrun during more than 35 years of personal involvement. Many of the original Colonial buildings have been preserved and more are being restored.  Some of the equipment used in the production of sugar still remains, including a cane press, the original stone aqueduct and 20’ waterwheel, and the “Etuve,” the huge steam oven which was used to heat up the “mélasse” (molasses).  Palm-lined walkways meander among cannons, ships’ anchors, huge bells and other artifacts.  Peacocks roam freely on the manicured grounds and the pigeons enjoy a large cote beside a turtle pond surrounded by beautifully fragrant flowering shrubs.  Domingo the monkey is housed near the hotel, which sits on the beach facing the beautiful Caribbean.

The museum on the grounds depicts Haiti’s rich history.  In front of the museum is a replica of Albert Mangones’ statue Le Negre Marron, “The Black Maroon,” often translated “The Unknown Slave” in English.  Maroon was the term used to designate runaway slaves who often formed communities in the mountains of Haiti.  It was with these people that the seeds of Haiti’s slave revolt were sown   The original statue graces the boulevard Champ de Mars in front of the now-ruined presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.  The slave’s shackle chains are broken.  He holds a machete, a tool turned weapon, in his right hand.  With his left he holds a conch shell to his lips, summoning other slaves to revolt.  It is a truly moving piece of art that has become the symbol of freedom in Haiti.

Amid all the opulence and beauty I could almost forget that I am in one of the world’s poorest nations.   Ninety percent of Haitians can never afford to set foot on this place.  The hotel exists for foreigners, which today means the employees of NGOs and UN personnel.  In some ways things haven’t changed much from the colonial days.  The iron chains are gone, but the economic ones are still well maintained.

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Chris brought me a Mahi Mahi from Montrouis Monday morning.  I filleted it with a chef’s knife (I would have loved to have my Buck filleting knife) and cooked it up with ginger and limejuice for supper for Ashley, James and I.  Excellent!  A little rice, carrots cooked in orange juice, a tomato and cucumber salad.

I am having to learn to modify my cooking here to adapt to some of the realities of Haiti.  I made a beef stew the other night using filet mignon.  Sounds crazy, but it’s cheaper than wieners here, less than $5.50 per pound.   My stew was tasting a little flat, as I couldn’t get celery anywhere, so I decided to add some of the parsley Yonese brought for me in the market.  Wow!  Haitian parsley has a rich clean taste that says a big hello to your taste buds.  It doesn’t overpower any of the other flavours, just adds its own distinct character to a dish.

Ashley, our visiting Environmental Engineer, detected cholera bacteria in our water supply.  This is a wakeup call for all in the area.  Our well is protected with a locked cover so the cholera must be in the ground water.  A lot of people were treated for the disease at the hospital here in Pierre Payen last year and they may have been the source.  I took a course of Dukoral before leaving Canada and therefore have a fairly good degree of protection, but safety precautions like washing salad vegetables with a weak bleach solution are still necessary.

Tuesday morning Chris took Leslie and Olivia to the airport to return to Canada, so it was my first morning alone in the work yard to take attendance and assign the day’s work.  I had to make sure the follow-up crew had the necessary paperwork and that they had water and ice and money for lunch.  All were very helpful and I got through it all right.  Melix, our foreman, who is normally quite impatient with my linguistic inability, was especially accommodating.

I later spent some time trying out my Creole on the guys who were stripping the molds from the filters and cleaning and reassembling the molds.  They understood me most of the time, but my grammar is so bad they were bent over in fits of laughter.  Edmond empathized with me, telling me how difficult it is for him to understand English when it is spoken quickly.

Our work yard is a very lively place.  It is frequently the source of boisterous, highly animated conversation, raucous whoops, high-pitched shrieks, spirited huzzahs and peals of exuberant laughter.  It is at times also a source of music, Haitians having a penchant for singing as they work.  I love the easy vivaciousness of the Haitian people, their zest for life in the face of adversity.

A little brown anole just scurried in through my window grille.  The lizard population seems to have grown exponentially since my last trip to Haiti.  They seem to be everywhere and two-foot-long specimens are common.  They provide great sport for Annie the Rottweiler, although she is no match for their lightning speed and squirrel-like agility.  My extensive on-line searches have helped me little to accurately identify most of those I encounter.  If anyone among my readers is herpetologically inclined, I would appreciate hearing from them.

I will have to spend some time cleaning this morning.  Last evening the wind picked up and now my floor is littered with leaves, spent blossoms and insects that for some reason choose to spend their final moments indoors.  On my last visit insects were not a problem for me.  This time my lower legs are emblazoned with claret-coloured welts left by critters I neither saw nor felt.  I have from time to time noticed clouds of no-see-ums (I didn’t expect to find these little Canadian buddies down here) and have felt the sharp bite of a little terror that looks very much like a bit of grey lint.

Today is Flag Day, a major national holiday in Haiti that is celebrated with great fanfare.  Haiti’s original national flag was adopted on May 18, 1803, and was sewn that day by Catherine Flon, goddaughter of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, revolutionary leader at the time.  The flag was based on the French tricolor, with the white ripped out to symbolize the expulsion of the colonizers.  The blue, representing the blacks of Haiti, and the red, for the gens de couleur or mulattoes, were brought together to symbolize the unity of the two groups.  Today, in the center of the flag is the coat of arms of the republic below which is the national motto In Union there is Strength.

Chris and I had lunch in Saint Marc with Barb McLeod,  a true free spirit who has been in Haiti for 8 years.  She is unaffiliated and sets her own agenda.  She told me she sees her role as getting to know the people, becoming part of the community, and addressing needs as they arise.  She currently operates a small school for the poorest children in her neighbourhood.   She is an adventuresome soul who, undaunted, regularly visits the local hougans, the voodoo priests, counseling them to come out of their darkness.   I truly enjoyed our conversation over “American” fast food—chicken wings, fries, Coke and ice cream—in the air-conditioned comfort of the restaurant.

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I have been listening to an audio copy of Rob Bell’s thought provoking book Love Wins.  It has touched off a firestorm in some Christian circles and earned Rob condemnation as a heretic from many prominent Christian mouthpieces.  Unfortunately, as so often happens when Christians disagree with someone, respect, humility and grace have been abandoned.  In his book Rob asks some very incisive questions about majority traditional Christian beliefs and arrives at some very compelling conclusions.  Part of the author’s appeal for me (I was introduced to his winsome style through his Nooma series) is that he shares my conviction that the bottom line is “God is love.”  Rob is just far more adept than I at articulating that sentiment.  Love Wins is not a book for the fainthearted Christian but it is definitely worth a look for any inquiring mind.   And for those who reject Christianity because they are turned off by the idea of a God of rigid edicts and proscriptions, Love Wins may provide a refreshing alternative perspective.

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