Party on in Haiti

Escape to Haiti for tropical sunshine, rum cocktails, and meet young people showing how struggle fuels passion and creates a party that never ends.

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Armchair Adventure inside
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Motor bike traffic
Beginning our descent into the Port au Prince airport, I awkwardly lean over the stranger in the window seat next to me to gaze longingly at the lush, tropical landscape below. My seatmate gives an audible sigh of irritation as I commandeer the armrest as well.
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Waterfall in Iraq
Beginning our descent into the Port au Prince airport, I awkwardly lean over the stranger in the window seat next to me to gaze longingly at the lush, tropical landscape below. My seatmate gives an audible sigh of irritation as I commandeer the armrest as well.

It’s true, I’m annoying. But I don’t care. It’s mid-March— a week before Easter— and back in Minnesota the glacial pace of winter is still withholding any signs of spring.

I need sunshine. I need warm, ocean breezes. I need a life without a winter coat.

My seasonal claustrophobia usually leaves me clawing for adventure around this time of year— so when an opportunity to defrost in the Caribbean comes along, I don’t hesitate.

In fact, it was only a few weeks ago that I was e-introduced to Boby Duval by a colleague. Boby’s organization, L’Athletique d’Haiti, was a highly respected nonprofit that promotes youth leadership for impoverished children growing up in one of Haiti’s most notorious slums. Their innovative soccer training program provides mentorship, physical fitness, supplemental tutoring, and— most importantly— hope. After several email exchanges with Boby, I became compelled to see his program in action.

If I’m being honest, I also became compelled to go anywhere that I could wear sandals. But seeing Boby’s organization in action— and finding ways to support it— was important, too. So I chalked it up as a win-win and booked my ticket.

As the flight attendant passes out blue disembarkation cards, I peel myself off my seatmate’s shoulder and eagerly start working my way through the list of questions.

Name? Check.

Home address? Check.

Passport number? Check.

Address of where I will be staying in Haiti?  Oh dear.

Back while we were discussing trip logistics, Boby graciously offered to pick me up at the airport. He offered to escort me around on my four-day trip. He also welcomed me to stay in the guest room at his house. In the dead of winter, the thought of rent-free accommodations in the tropics seemed like a no-brainer. Now that I’m about to enter a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, have no idea where I’m going, and don’t know what the strange man who is picking me up in the airport lobby in a few minutes even looks like— it’s possible that cabin fever may have impaired my better judgement.

(What the hell was I thinking? I agreed to stay at some guy’s house I don’t even know? Could I really be THIS STUPID?)
Mother and son
Not ready to face the answer to this painfully rhetorical question, my hands reflexively cover my face in horror.

Our plane lands and taxis across the tarmac as a movable stairway rolls up to the door.

(How can I enter the country if I can’t tell them where I’m staying? Do I really WANT to enter the country if I can’t tell them where I’m staying?)

Outside, the weather is a balmy 75 degrees but I’m already sweating. I’m racking my brain for ideas but so far— nothing.

I make my way down the stairs and follow the herd of passengers across the tarmac toward the terminal— still trying to figure out my next move.

Inside the terminal, the crowd flows into the Immigration section where people scramble for the shortest waiting lines. I search for the longest line and let anyone who wants to cut in front go right ahead. So far, stalling for time is the only idea I’ve got.

(If I can’t explain where I am staying will they simply send me back to the US? Could I just write the name of any hotel on the card? What hotels are there in Haiti anyway?)

I scan the walls of the airport looking for hotel advertisements in search of clues— any information I can use— but still nothing.

Inching closer to the front of the line, an expressionless-yet-slightly-menacing immigration officer behind the counter awaits my arrival. I realize that the only thing that could possibly make me feel more stupid than being so excited to wear sandals that I booked a trip without actually knowing where I’m going is admitting it to an immigration officer.

As the last passenger in front of me gets his passport stamped and waived through, I nervously step forward. The officer impassively flips through my sweaty passport and glances up to make sure I match the photo. Then he studies the blue card while I wring my hands and wait to see what happens next.

Halfway down, he squints and looks up.

“Where will you be staying in Haiti, Madame?” he asks unemotionally.

“Uhhh— I’m staying at a friend’s house?” I squeak.

“What is your friends address?"

”Uhhh—I’m not sure?”

“You don’t know where your friend lives?”

“Uhhh— not exactly?”

“Well, what is your friend’s name?” the agent asks, becoming increasingly impatient with my lack of answers— not to mention the way I keep answering each question like it’s another question.

“Uhhh—Boby Duval?”

Suddenly the agent drops his pen and his head snaps to attention. “Boby Duval? You know Boby Duval?”

(Oh, man. I can’t take it anymore. The judgement is excruciating! Do I know Boby Duval?)

"Okay, okay— so I didn’t properly investigate!” I confess. “I just wanted to wear sandals for a few days— is that really such a crime? Have you ever experienced five months of Minnesota winter??” The officer seems puzzled by my hysterics, but with one last shot I say, “Look, Boby is waiting for me outside. If you let me through, I can ask him for his address and come right back. Will that work?”

“He’s outside now?” the officer asks. “Here at the airport?” He quickly stamps my passport, shoves it across the desk at me, and bolts out of his chair. “Let’s get your luggage!” he shouts, racing over toward the baggage claim.

(Why do I get the feeling I am missing something here?)

I scramble to keep up with the officer but he’s moving fast. First, he heads over to a man by the baggage carousel where they talk for a few moments. Then both guys pull my luggage off the carousel and motion for me to follow them to the lobby.
Boby Duval
“Who is this Boby Duval anyway?” I ask, trying to keep up with my newfound entourage. “Do you guys know him?”

“Boby Duval is one of Haiti’s most beloved soccer stars and celebrities!” the officer replies breathlessly. “He’s also a political activist and the hero who is helping our nation’s children!”

(Boby Duval is a celebrity? Go figure.)

Moments later, we pass into the arrival hall where a tall, good-looking, middle-aged guy is signing autographs. My new bell-hop besties rush over for handshakes and back slaps.

“Welcome to Haiti! You must be Dina!” says Boby.

“You must be Boby Duval,” I reply. “You never told me you were famous,” I added in a semi-state of shock.

“You never asked.”
Caribbean Sea off coast of Haiti
Caribbean Sea
Tap tap taxi in Haiit
Catching a ride on a tap-tap taxi
Bougainvillea in Haiti
Rara parade
Rara procession
Tap-tap passengers
Tap-taps.... Haiti's answer to Uber
Haitian family
Easter Sunday
Houses in Haiti
Hillside homes
Haitian kids
Curious kids
Marketplace in Haiti
Colorful tap-taps
Riding with style
Kompas celebration in Haiti
Kanaval, Kreyol & Kompas— the colorful coalescence of Haitian identity
Haitian woman with fruit hat
Every spring, all across Haiti, a powerful and passionate life force swells as the annual Kanaval (aka carnivale) season gets underway. To the outside observer, kanaval might resemble other indulgent, pre-Lenten celebrations— streets filled with colorful parades and thousands of dancing revelers in masks and costumes— but in reality it’s a living history lesson on identity, resistance, and a kickass revolution that makes Haiti a multicultural force to be reckoned with.... continue reading
Shahbandar cafe
Haiti’s story began in the 1600s after French explorers landed on the island of Hispianola— repaying the hospitality of the Taino natives with slavery, murder, and enough disease to pretty much wipe them out. With few Taino slaves left to work the plantations, west and central Africans were imported (in chains) to pick up the slack. But these Africans had something more powerful than labor. They had identity.

For centuries, tribes from Benin, Congo, Nigeria, and Angola had practiced variations of Vodou. More than just a religion, Vodou was a way of life centering around the existence of one Supreme God. It was also an oral tradition passed through generations of families and communities. Because this Supreme God didn’t micromanage the day to day stuff, spirits (aka “loa”) ruled over affairs from family, love, and happiness to justice, wealth, and revenge. With every loa responsible for a particular aspect of life, the primary goal and activity of Vodou practitioners was to serve these spirits through prayers, offerings, and performing devotional rites in return for health, protection, and good favor.

According to King Louis XIV’s slavery handbook (yep, it was thing), however, not only were all African religions outlawed, slaveholders were required to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival. Or else.

But when it comes to forcing identity on others, rules are begging to be broken. The more the Europeans tried to suppress African identity and tradition, the more this melting pot of slaves united. They pooled their religious knowledge, and by including spirits from many different African— even native Taino— nations, they inadvertently created a religious amalgamation that centered around a core belief: the flat out, unequivocal, total rejection of the Africans' status as slaves.

While they may have been physically restrained, mentally they resisted. They ingeniously disguised their loa spirits as Roman Catholic saints, creating a stealth worshiping platform right under their captors’ noses. By utilizing their oral storytelling traditions, they became increasingly culturally unified. Secret, late-night Vodou ceremonies offered more than just resistance against white domination, they strengthened bonds between people from vastly different ethnic groups and provided a space for organizing within the community.  In 1791, Vodou’s most famous “resistance rendezvous” was a secret gathering in a forest called Bois Caïman where participants planned the revolution that would ultimately free the Haitian people from French colonial rule.

Modern Kanaval celebrations— with their kompa music-blaring, rum drinking, dirty dancing energy— are annual reminders that Haitian identity cannot be stopped or suppressed. And the sexually suggestive dancing, profanity-filled plays, and music lyrics mocking authority are a way to cut loose, celebrate freedom— and have a little ‘fun’ with a capital FU.
And while the arrival of Lent may bring the festivities to an end everywhere else in the world, Haitian rara picks up where the party leaves off. Often referred to as "Vodou taken on the road,” rara is a series of music festivals, processions, and parades that continue to flow through the streets of Haiti during the Lenten period. Vodou priests perform religious ceremonies, musicians play drums and horns, and rum-drinking crowds sing, dance, and celebrate their Afro-Haitian ancestry.

From slavery and political oppression to earthquakes and hurricanes, one thing is for sure. The life force within the Haitian identity cannot and will not be suppressed, controlled, or contained because the people of Haiti do more than just endure.

They thrive. They invent. They party on.
Flag of Haiti

Another uniquely Haitian creation is kreyol. Based on the French vocabulary, kreyol incorporates a fusion of African, Spanish, Portuguese, and Caribbean languages as well. In 1987, kreyol became Haiti’s national language alongside French, but it’s the only language that all Haitians hold in common.  
It’s no surprise that kreyol has a variety of kanaval expressions encouraging revelers to abandon inhibitions. Here are a few quick and easy “party kreyol” phrases to help you cut loose on your next visit to the island:

• lage ko'w: 'let go of yourself'

• mete menn' anlè: 'put your hands in the air'

• balanse: 'sway'

• bobinen: 'spin'

• souke: 'shake'

• sote: 'jump up'

• gouye: 'grind your hips'

• vole: 'jump up'
Voodoo altar
Zombie art
The origin of zombies— the undead creatures of horror fiction fame— can be traced back to Haitian Vodou where they were commonly found on the fringes of Vodou’s secret societies. African scholars claim the word comes from nzambi— the Kongo word for "soul"— but since Haitian zombie stories are told with about as much laughter as seriousness, it’s hard to be sure where they rank religiously.... continue reading
Nevertheless, Haitian rural folklore regards zombies as dead people who have been physically revived by a sorcerer or witch and now walk the earth as mindless creatures with no free will of their own. Easily recognized by their trance-like state, zombies are like slaves under the control of an outside force.

While Haitians aren’t afraid of the zombies themselves, they’re terrified of becoming a zombie.

And for good reason.

The spread of zombies is on the rise worldwide as they have morphed into an even more spine-chilling form of mindless subordination— Smombies.

The new generation of the walking dead, Smartphone zombies or ‘Smombies’ are on the rise in every corner of the world. They are easily recognized as distracted pedestrians who walk slowly and without attention to their surroundings. Because their trance-like state forces them to focus solely upon their phone, Smombies are increasingly becoming dangerous to society by tripping over curbs, walking out in front of moving cars, crashing into other walkers, and falling down stairs.
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In social setting, smombies can be difficult to engage with in meaningful communication as they remain enslaved to this outside force, unable to pay attention. The "smombie apocalypse" is upon us.

Be afraid.

Be very, very afraid.
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Map of Haiti
Satellite map of Haiti
World map
Haitian drink
The Spirit of Haiti
Sugar cane field
Under centuries of French rule, Haiti’s sugar production was once so robust they provided more than forty percent of all the sugar consumed in Europe. But freedom isn’t always free. After the Haitian Revolution of 1804, when the French finally got the boot, the sore losers left and took most of the market with them.... continue reading
Carrying sugar cane
Left with an abundance of cane fields covering an island country the size of New Jersey, Haitian farmers had to get creative– so they diversified their sugar production to join the rest of their Caribbean neighbors making rum.

A lot of it.

While the collective Caribbean region operates several dozen rum distilleries, Haiti has more than 500. These tiny, primitive distilleries dot the valleys and jungles, perch on mountainsides, and sprawl along the coastlines– producing some of the most diverse rum offerings in the world. Unlike the dark, rich, and sweet variety of most Caribbean rum, Haitians produce clairin– a uniquely Haitian spirit known for its crystal-clear color. Made from fresh sugar cane juice, it undergoes the same distillation process as rum, but like whiskey from Ireland, champagne from France, and tequila from Mexico, only true clairin comes from Haiti. From music and stories to kanaval and voodoo, clairin plays an important role in everyday Haitian culture.

And while Haiti’s booming DIY distillery scene may use mid-18th century-style production techniques, it’s actually the micro-brew-organic-farming model ahead of its time– proving that sometimes you can be so far behind, you’re actually in the lead.

Made from indigenous cane varieties, clairin is non-hybridized, with no chemical additives, fertilizers, pesticides, or filtration. Stalks are harvested by hand and carted on donkeys to wooden mills.
Clarin distillery
Distilleries, called guildives– a kreyol adaptation of French meaning “kill-devil” (colonial slang for rum)– are small, rustic, and run without electricity. Stills and fermentation vats are typically made of oak or mango wood. Untouched by industrial agribusiness methods, the entire operation is so dang environmentally friendly it just might save the world. Sort of.

But best of all, Haitian clairin is handcrafted with the artisanal, small-batch spirit that embodies the natural terroir of the communities that produce it. Every bottle is labeled with the village of origin, the harvest year, and sugar cane variety, as well as the type of fermentation and the distiller’s name. As producers add their own finishing touches to the fermentation– such as citronella, cinnamon, or ginger– they create a final product ranging from soft and floral to intense, full bodied, and aggressive.

Until recently, clairin was mainly bought on the roadsides from plastic jugs (reusable– whew!), but now that the outside world has discovered their secret, bottlers and exporters are sending clairin to high-end, hipster restaurants and cocktail lounges across the US and beyond.

But the real party is at the Festival du Rhum– Haiti’s international celebration of booze. Started in 2014, the three-day event features tastings and workshops by renowned rum experts, cooking demonstrations from chefs around the world, as well as artistic performances, fashion shows, and a carousing reminder that Haitians don’t just make lemonade out of lemons– they make clairin out of cane.

And that, my friends, is the Haitian spirit.
Host your own Haitian Happy Hour:
1. Start with a bottle of Clarin
Glass of Clarin Regal Sour
2. Mix up a Clarin Regal Sour
Shrimp creole
3. Grab a pot and throw down a spicy batch of Shrimp Creole
Art display
Garden in Haiti
Backyard garden
Children at orphanage
Children at orphanage
Haitian kids
Curious kids
Crafts for sale
Arts & crafts
Caribbean sea on Haiti's coast
Caribbean Sea
Haitian girl
Brown eyes
Street in Haiti
Street life
Kites for sale
Kites for sale
Boy selling kites
Young kite salesman
Stone wall & bougainvillea
Stone wall & bougainvillea
Haitian child
Sweet girl
Garden loft in Haiti
Garden loft
Flying kite on Haitian beach
Kites- therapy on a string
Kites flying
Every day across the island, colorful works of art speckle the skies as kids (of every age) partake in Haiti’s most popular past time– flying kites. While Haiti’s roadside kite stands are happy to hook them up, learning how to make kites is practically a rite of passage for Haitian children. In a matter of minutes, miniature engineers transform sticks, twine and old plastic bags into a creative DIY activity– anytime, anywhere..... continue reading
Kite market
While it might look like just a little fun with friends, experts believe that kite-flying holds the secrets to health and happiness in more ways than we realize.

Beyond fresh air and exercise, kite-flying also aids with stress reduction. Simply watching a kite float across the sky can be an easy meditative activity (for those who don’t sit still easily), helping let go of life for a little while.

Kite-flying also fosters ‘present-moment centeredness,’ which decreases anxiety and depression. Unwinding your string as your kite soars higher and higher requires full concentration– as well as fully occupied hands– making it nearly impossible to multitask. Or check your phone.
Most importantly, kite-flying is one of the few fun activities that actually forces you to look up. And lucky thing, too.  According to research, Americans check their phone on average once every 12 minutes – burying their heads in their phones 80 times a day. Spinal surgeon Dr. Kenneth Hansraj found that as people spend an average of two to four hours per day with their heads tilted downward in activities like texting and reading, this adds up to 60 pounds of pressure on their spine. Another study suggests that our skeletons are actually becoming altered in some terrifying ways. Yikes.

So for physical and mental therapy without bills, HMOs, surgeries, prescriptions, or boring waiting rooms, try flying a kite.

All you need is a breeze.
Food for thought: How will humans evolve over the next 50,000 years?
Glass of Clarin Regal Sour
Haitian textile
Antoine's paper doll design
Future Antoine
Robenson's creation
Robenson's paper doll
Robenson's details of the dream
Robenson with his family
Robenson and family
Acrilik being acrilik
Acrilik's paper doll design
Acrilik the rapper
Acrilik's notes
Acrilik- details of the dream
Acrilik with his family
Acrilik at home
Stanley's future self design
Future Stanley
Shelton's future self
Future Shelton
Sheltons details of vision
The teacher
Pierre's doll design
Future Pierre
Pierre's notes on his future
Pierre- details of the dream
Listen to the GSD Podcast
The Boys of Bwa Nef- Haitian teens explore identity and dreams amidst a reality of poverty and natural disaster
Haitian textile
Dina with kids in Kenya
Ready for an adventure in the savannah?

Next stop... Kenya!
Photo credits
Haiti postage stamp: By Mark Morgan (Flickr: Haiti JJ Dessalines(10)) - [CC BY-SA 2.0 (] -

Kanava, Kreyol & Kompas photo: By Hope Art (Flickr: Kanaval-74) - [CC BY-SA 2.0] -

Looking at smartphone on bike: user "Mo Riza" [CC BY 2.0 (]

Texting while eating: By jseliger2 (Flicke: cell phone zombies-1215) - [CC BY-SA 2.0] -

Walking with smart devices: Ccmsharma2 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] -

Zombie art: By Thomas Quine (Flickr: Big Mama Zombie) - [CC BY-SA 2.0] -

Woman with fruit hat: By HOPE Art (Flickr: Kanaval-13) - [CC BY-SA 2.0] -

Zombie alter: Calvin Hennick, for WBUR Boston - [CC BY 3.0 (] -,_Rada,_and_Gede_spirits;_November_5,_2010..jpg

People walking with phones: Rawpixel Ltd [CC BY 2.0] -

Map of Haiti in Caribbean: Cacahuate, translations by Joelf (fr) and Piet-c (eo). [CC BY-SA 4.0] -

Sugar cane processing: J.M. Lebigre [CC BY-SA 4.0] -

Flying kite: Steevven1 | Owns [CC BY 2.5 (] -

Sugar cane field: Hannes Grobe [CC BY-SA 2.5 (] -