Haiti is rich in raw materials, colours, scents, vegetation, livestock and the exchange of goods. Opinions are expressed through words, looks, laughs, or simply with the exchange of a fruit and a coin. The feeling of sharing is the foundation of all relationships and activities. In Haiti, people distinguish themselves by their ability to help each other and get along. It is a place where having or looking the part are not the main values, because every object can become another. What makes them successful is the strength of its people, both at work and in their spare time. Even lazing about strengthens human relationships, as it often makes them more meaningful, allowing room for surprises, novelties and simple pleasures.
The ability to feel pure joy and to take pleasure in the small things, often frees the mind from the awareness of living in a borderland that becomes the only possible world. Haiti is a paradise, a unique place, capable of making you believe there could be no other world outside its magic.
The cultivation and exchange of agricultural products have contributed to the development of the planet for millennia. Abilities that are still considered as the focal points for the survival of the culture and traditions of Haiti, but that most people interpret as symptoms of backwardness. Visitors are greeted by looks and gestures of great kindness and hospitality. When faced with white people, the inhabitants tend to express themselves through attitudes of curiosity, not hostility, even if they would have every right to do so. This is something we can learn in Haiti: wisdom.
Some perfectly normal places appear surreal. Haiti has the ability to deconstruct the significance that we attach to objects and to make us reflect on their real significance. Every activity is capable of undermining our values: from small talk to playing with children, from understanding the differences in values and daily life to considering existential issues. Every human activity in Haiti can surprise, charm and entice, to the extent that you would like to experience every situation and create new others in order to finally feel alive.
Means of transport are collective in Haiti. Private vehicles are almost non-existent. Thanks to the spirit of sharing and a few gourdes (local currency) you can get to your destination by any means. The transports available are: 1) Motorbikes, which are in fact all ‘taxis’. At every intersection there are dozens of boys waiting to dart through traffic without ever touching each other, like in an anthill. Families of two, three, five people plus goods and animals walk very long distances. 2) The most common means of transportation is the tap-tap an old coloured pick-up with long wooden benches that seat 10 persons plus the passenger compartment. Port au Prince’s rush hour is packed with thousands of them: the concentration of human activity is incredible. If such methods were adopted in “Western countries” the problem of traffic and pollution would be solved in a single day. 3) What is really unique, however, are big buses decorated with colourful allegorical and religious figures. There are countless slogans, primarily religious but also existential, statements of strong values, like hope, family, friendship, will-power, awareness of hypocrisies, suffering and supreme salvation. On the back of the bus there are beautiful murals depicting a smiling and seemingly benevolent Jesus, or holy figures such as Saint Jacques slaying the dragon, heavenly scenes or sometimes even, , Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, as if to say that what matters is to have idols and to find, through them, the strength to go on.
Bartering is essential in the Haitian life and markets are where true life unfolds. Products lie everywhere, the streets and squares teem with people, buyers and sellers. Fruit, vegetables, animals, sugar cane, coal, sweets, cosmetics and common household items are laid on the ground or carried on the head. There are manufacturers that present and sell their products, something rare nowadays. The products are all of high-quality and come from organic and subsidiary agriculture. Monoculture is non-existent. Foods are completely natural and fields are cultivated without the use of pesticides or herbicides, unknown to most people. Here you can still find livestock markets with cows, horses, roosters, etc. The real wonder of the markets is the wide selection of fruits of the earth, such as mango, papaya, arbre vèritable, arbre à pain, limes, pied caimite, okra, corossol, quinepe, and cooked fruits such as the national snack: fried banana. And lastly, rapadou, which is sold in discs: a convenient “packaging” for home consumption! Trade restrictions? No, nothing is forbidden, common sense is shared and it is the only rule that counts.
Another surprise of times gone by are the shops, from small retailers under the sun to pharmacies that seem a relic from the 1930s. These would be considered as places of warship by vintage lovers.
Far niente (Lazing about)
One of the least immediate concepts to consider as the starting point for the Haitian spirit is far niente (lazing about). This is not “carefree idleness”, but more simply “lazing about”. In the Western world, where people are scurrying about, where there is always something to do or that should be done, lazing about is a luxury for which, paradoxically, one has to take from valuable time. Haiti’s life and needs are different, time follows the rhythm of nature, of day and night, of fishing and farming, and everything slows down. You can get a very clear idea of lazing about when you see people taking afternoon strolls to the Ile a Vache at the end of the day’s fishing and routine work. They go back to their huts, eat and wait for the sunset. It is not even about waiting for something, it is just life: nobody asks themselves what they could do; social life is where they are, at that moment. All we need to do is to change our perspective and ask ourselves, instead, what we do every afternoon.
There are countless trades all over Haiti. From the bustling Port au Prince to the least explored countryside, there is always someone doing something: exchanging, trading, producing and fixing. Washing in a river is the norm in the country-side. The water is crystal clear and it is amazing to perceive the joy of a bath in natural surroundings. Everything is still natural and manual; there are only handmade crafts, and experience handed down is the key to all knowledge. Nothing is produced in series (or produced industrially), a concept totally rejected by the people. Carpentry begins with the choice of tree, still rooted in the ground. Cabinet makers decorate everything: boats, shops, parts of buildings, even cars. Almost all “modern” objects are embellished with wooden decorations and inlays to appear less cold.
Music and dance
The national music is the kompa that is blasted from every street corner. The rara is a form of celebratory music played in the streets by small groups that create festival or procession situations. This is typical around Easter. These performances can sometimes be a form of protest or have political significance. During holidays, processions are endless and also involve entire small villages. Everyone participates performing in coloured satin costumes. Some dance, others on mules, others on horseback, and everyone has a role to play. Sometimes they want to represent symbolic scenes like the revolution, redemption or the call to the spirits. Music is the sound that comes from daivaksen, bamboo of various lengths that give different notes. Carnival is another time devoted to dancing, in every village you can find women in costumes and men dressed up like voodoo spirits singing and dancing day and night. Participating in these moments is an unforgettable experience. (For us and for them, since white men in forests at carnival time is a rarity indeed).
The naive style belongs to Haitian culture and is characterised by the use of many colours. It is a cheerful type of painting that enhances the Caribbean world. These beautiful paintings depict scenes of life and human activity (women at the market, sugar cane workers under a flamboyant tree) and also depicting villages, sugar cane plantations, markets and streets. Even the voodoo cult is very present in naive painting. Everything is represented simply, without perspective or symbolism. In Jacmel, cradle of Haitian figurative art, you can find the magnificent Hotel Florita in which surreal art covers the walls along with religious allegories, dark and introspective images depicting Haiti after the earthquake. (But as with many other places around the world this is not the image of Haiti perceived globally). At Croix des Bouquets, near Port au Price, there is the famous street of the artisans of images de fer. The allegorical wrought iron figures represent symbols and Voodoo Gods, Erzulie, Legba, Ghede (but also masks, daggers and scenes of life that constantly refer to voodoo culture).