Travels in Haiti

Haiti is a hard place. I've done a fair bit of international traveling and still experienced quite a bit of culture shock when I first arrived. From the moment you arrive at the airport you're bombarded with requests to carrying your luggage. Whether you like it or not, you're followed by a couple of red-shirted men grabbing your luggage away from you hoping for a tip. Even if you tip one person, there are 2 or 3 more behind him demanding the same tip for simply being there, even going so far as preventing you from closing the car door until you tip them. Not exactly the warmest welcome, but this isn't a country for tourists looking to vacation. This is a country in a lot of need, and in need of love. The town the airport is in doesn't exactly have roads. It's more like areas of exposed cracked earth where cars speed past people, stray dogs, big and numerous piles of rubble left over from the earthquake, burning trash, mopeds with way too many people on them and pigs grazing through the trash. There are no traffic signs, or even clear paths that define a road. My hands were sweaty from grabbing onto my seat as we nearly drove over people carrying large baskets of fruit on their heads. I was the only one who seemed alarmed by all this chaos, so obviously my travel savvy self has become a little green in my thirties. It was heartbreaking to see people living in essentially rubble.


 Haiti is also a beautiful place. The people, the tropical weather, the mountainous landscape and turquoise waters, and the mystery. A very large portion of the people practice voodoo and they take it very seriously. The food is fresh and sold in ample amounts alongside every street. And when I say fresh, I mean you buy your chicken flapping about and then kill it when it's ready for the pot. The hardest thing to see were kids and frightfully thin women carrying empty water jugs up steep mountains. You can't drink the water so fresh, clean water really is liquid gold. I was told lots of the locals just drink rain water. And here I am snuffing my nose at Durham's city water. My host and beautiful hostess, Frantz and Gisela are amazing people with maybe the best veranda I've every seen. Orchids and gardenias, massive antler ferns and stunning views of the mountains. Hot running water, delicious food and even wireless internet. I landed in a very lucky spot. After asking my hostess, I was shocked to learn that the middle-upper/upper class people of Haiti consist of about 3-5% of the population. The other 95-97% are very poor. And I mean VERY poor. These were hard numbers to hear and I gathered a lot of it comes down to a severe lack of education. Haiti is a tropical place, but many of the mountains are now barren, almost dessert like due to people cutting trees down to make charcoal. Gas is very expensive so they sell the charcoal for fuel. Even within protected forests people have chipped away the tree bark to burn so eventually these protected trees will die as well. It's hard to be upset with these people for destroying the natural landscape, when you know they are just trying to feed their families. There are numerous organizations trying to re-forest, but as we know this take time, and lots of it. Meanwhile people are hungry.

I was asked to come to Haiti to teach a class in painting on Ceramics, Metals and Glass. Haitians are extremely talented people. Their ability to copy and mimic things is incredible. You will see an original painting for sale on a street corner, and then on the next you'll see the exact same painting, but they are both originals by different artists. And that, while amazing, is also a problem. Haitians as talented as they are, for some reason lack creativity. It is as if they are afraid to reach inside themselves and create something new and instead focus on copying what has already proven to be a good piece of art. The result is street after street, market after market, of paintings that look like they were all done by the same person. There is not much variety in the work.
I came to Haiti to not only teach the techiques of how to use specific types of different paints, but to teach my students how to think creatively on their own. I did this by first introducing them to new paints and a new surface. My students were all painters, and are skilled in acrylics on stone, wood and canvases. Well, one guy who worked in the bakery next to my classroom had never painted in his life, but I enjoyed showing him some basics. And I know he enjoyed the change from slicing deli meats and rolling dough.
I taught them these basics by having them copy some step-by-step photo tutorials of some designs I created based on Haitian botanicals and wildlife. (I will share a few of these in a following post for you to try at home if you wish.) Then as the week progressed and they began to understand how the new paints reacted with the surfaces I encouraged them to think more creatively for themselves. They wanted to copy my lines and colors exactly. But I asked them to change their colors and create similar, but different pieces from each other. By the end of the week they were so happy with their work. They were creating new designs all on their own, and they were beautiful. We worked from around 9-4 everyday. And after class they they would catch a ride in the back of the pick-up truck down the mountain. I held my breath each time watching them in the rear-view mirror bouncing up and down on the edge of the truck. I would think to myself, "In America, this would be so illegal."
The room I taught it was just off the bakery where all day about 5 women make cookies, breads and other yummies to sell to tourists. They were so curious about what we were working on. I wish I could have taught them all. These women were very helpful and washed and dried all the pieces we painted, as well as gave me cookies hot out of the oven. The language barrier kept our communication to pleasantries, which is a shame. God has blessed me with many talents, but languages is the least of them. Well, maybe math is the least, and languages is a close second.
My hope is that my students will take the paints and new knowledge they posses and start to think more independently and creatively. Not to focus on copying what is all around them, but to create new pieces in a style never before seen in Haiti. And I hope they are able to sell these new creations for a living. These are talented artists, and they deserve to make a living with their hard work.
The week was not an easy one for me. It was hard to sleep at night. Every night there were loud dog fights, every morning roosters crowing, and always cows or goats moaning. Security is very tight and the house I stayed in had so many bells and whistles with every open door and window, that and I'm a spoiled rotten princess with my down comforter, pillow top mattress, down pillows, snuggly kitties and a wonderful husband who caters to my every need. I'm looking forward to being home and drinking my purified water. I'm also looking forward to seeing what these men do with their talents and new knowledge.

When I was in Haiti, there was a song called Dekole:
(just copy and paste into your browser and hit PLAY) It means "Take off" and it was very popular in Haiti. The country wants desperately to change, to "Take off" and do great things. Listen to it, dance it to, I certainly am. 


Below are some of the platters that I brought with me to Haiti to use as teaching samples. I used subjects that were familiar to the Haitian people.