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Locked down but not out in Italy

Singing from the balconies! One nice thing about this crisis ... solidarity! “Guess you’re not living like a tourist anymore,” was the funny, truthful and somewhat gut-wrenching message of a friend the day the lockdown in Italy began. Today is day 6. My beloved Italia has been hit hard with the COVID19 epidemic. With the second largest elderly population in the world, the epidemic has meant a disproportionate amount of deaths in the country. So though I haven’t been worried about contracting it myself, this isn’t about me or someone like me who, if contracted it would probably have a sucky couple of weeks and then recover. It is about if someone like me contracted it and then spread it to a person with a complicated health history or an elderly person with a weakened immune system. Eerily orderly: Lines for the grocery store, each person one meter apart In a country with no concept (and no physical room really) for personal space, and in a city with reproachable hygie

Ayiti cherie

Jacmel beach

Practically since we met in 2006, a good friend of ours has been urging us to come visit her country, Haiti. So since then, Haiti has been on our minds. In 2010, my husband was deployed to the country for the emergency response. That year, Haiti was in everyone's minds.

We finally made the trip last week. Reflecting on my recent 10 days there, I originally started to write about how the country seems after the earthquake, how it looks, how the people are. I was so concerned and interested to hear about it all after having only had second-hand stories. However, thinking twice about this post, I decided against this. I did not go to Haiti for work or for a journalist assignment. I went to Haiti to attend a wedding and to visit friends, happy occasions that led to a joyous trip and I don’t want to boil Haiti down to those terrible 30 seconds in January 2010. There is much more to the country than that.

Here are some highlights:

Yes, this cake is real.
Nothing is too fancy 

Haitians love to dress up and I knew even before landing in the country that despite my cocktail dress and new black heels, I would be one of the least fancy people at the wedding. I was correct. For any Haitian event, but particularly a wedding, you bring out the long dresses, big jewels, elegant purses, fancy hats, and of course sexy shoes. It was truly a feast for the eyes to see the men and women so elegant and stylish, many of the women, of any age, pulling off dresses that I could only dream of.

It helps when a friend has a waterproof go-pro
Hidden, but seriously hidden, gems 

As an outsider, it can be easy to lose sight of what Haiti has to offer when just looking around. Haiti is a very poor country. There is no escaping that fact and that kind of poverty is not subtle. There are slums covering the hillsides; there are dry river beds completely filled with trash. There are people everywhere looking for a way to survive, making a dollar or two for food. These parts of Haiti are obvious to any visitor. The parts that aren’t so obvious are some sites of exceptional natural beauty. Don’t get me wrong, some of Haiti’s natural beauty is obvious. It too has the idyllic Caribbean beaches that cruise ships have been exploiting for years now. However, some of the beauty is quite hidden indeed. One such place is Bassin Bleu. Bassin Bleu is a series of waterfalls that fill turquoise basins at different ground levels. And when I say this is not obvious it is because even with a guide and 4 other Haitians in the car asking locals in Creole for directions, we still just barely found it. This was the definition of a hidden gem. But the trek made it more of an adventure and it was worth it to finally jump into the stunningly beautiful, freezing cold water, which we had completely to ourselves. Another advantage of hidden treasures: exclusivity.

My husband dreams about this lobster
The food! 

Food for me is part of culture so I love it for that, but I am not a foodie when it comes to researching dishes, restaurants or specialties of a place. So maybe this fact is well known, but I was not expecting it: Haitian food is AMAZING! Everything is flavorful, savory, even spicy (especially when you add the standard pickliz, i.e. spicy cabbage accompaniment.) Fish, lobster, conch (lambi), shrimp, everything from the water is well made. Plantains adorn most meals or come in the form of a tasty snack: Papitas, i.e. plantain chips. The local peanut butter, Mamba, is extraordinary. At the supermarket, it comes in all different ways, some creamier, some darker, some spicier, but of course, the best is the homemade Mamba that makes other peanut butter, especially non-Haitian varieties, seem like processed goo. Fresh mangoes, coconuts, sour saps, all of these are standard fruits that you find at breakfast or as juices. They are usually even just hanging in the trees above your head.

Barrels of Booze

To get a little buzz on, you have at least two incredibly good alcoholic choices: Prestige beer that is the standard national beer, but it really tastes much more flavorful than your typical lager, and Barbancourt rum, that has won all sorts of awards and has its die-hard followers (one of whom was on the trip with us). We even went to see the Barbancourt distillery to learn as much as we could about its details, production, varieties and distribution. In this private tour, we had the full attention of our guide and seeing our enthusiasm for his rum, he indulged us with our requests, questions, comments and photo-taking. Our accommodating guide even let us peer into the resting room for the prestigious 15 year Barbancourt and let us have a taste of the "forgotten barrel of rum" laying among the others. It was a special tour that made the enthusiasts of our group even more enthusiastic.

The temple of rum
Haitian hospitality 

The people were amazing. This goes without saying for my friend’s family and all of her friends who went out of their way to drive us around and show us a good time in their country, but it also was true for others, like the head of HR who exceptionally gave us a tour of the Barbancourt distillery when his colleague was not available. And the wonderful staff at the hotel in Jacmel who helped us with anything we threw at them and then went even above and beyond that to turn their lobby into a movie theater for us (the only guests) moving chairs around, setting up speakers and even making popcorn. I had never seen such hospitality and such honest desire to be kind.

Of course, there is a flip side and you have to be understanding of the fact that our hotel room in Jacmel, for example, didn’t have water for a day: so no shower, toilet or sink to use; that when there are demonstrations it can take two hours to get across town; that people will ask to help you or sell you something for money, because they have to; that is the only way they have work.

View over Port-au-Prince
Haiti is an amazing country and I wish with all my heart that both its internal problems, like rampant corruption, and its external problems, like being in the path of natural disasters, let up and allow the country to take advantage of all its bounty and richness, both of land and of spirit. It would be great to know Haiti again as the Pearl of the Antilles, not as the poorest country in the western hemisphere or the country devastated in 2010.