Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Haiti Miscellaneous

A lot of photogenic things happen here that don't necessarily warrant a stand-alone post, so this will serve as a catch-all.

First, Guita modeled the size of the crazy huge gourds hanging from the tree in our backyard. These are no edible, and they hang from a stem about the size of the last joint of my little finger. When they go rotten, the tree drops them, and they splatter all over. Pretty crazy!

This is what the gourds look like when they're babies. It's pretty prehistoric looking!

Right after Thanksgiving the Embassy sent a group of us to participate in the last day of a massive Habitat for Humanity campaign to build about 100 houses for people living in the community of Leogane. Leogane was the epicenter of the January 2010 earthquake, and approximately 90% of the buildings there were damaged or destroyed completely. Habitat is building houses that are raised off the ground (good for bugs and flooding) and half cinder blocks/ half wood. The houses are 285 square feet and have one internal room. They have two doors and three windows and a covered porch. The inhabitants got to choose the paint from a set of colors, and the construction teams (and Embassy helpers) primed and painted for about 5 hours. It was crazy hot but lots of fun! There were about 600 volunteers from the U.S., Canada, and Ireland and a number of other countries that sent small delegations. My friend and colleague Emily and I posed with the Haitian flag to show our solidarity!

Then we got back to work priming.

At the end, President and Mrs Carter came around to take a photo with each home owner and the team that built the house.

Then it was the Christmas photo shoot. Guita gets a little worried about all the fuss, but she doesn't really mind sitting with both of us and getting cuddled and petted!

This one made the cut! We didn't inflict silly hats on the cats this year; they were pretty freaked out by going into the yard without their harnesses, and we didn't want them to take off!

Here's a nice picture of the two of us at our first Christmas party of the season!

On Christmas Eve day Emily, Ian and I went back to Furcy in the mountains south of Port-au-Prince to see a different (or more accurately, the other) restaurant, Rustik. It's dog-friendly, so we took Guita and one of her best girlfriends, Lucky. We're still working on how to communicate to the guides: we did not want to go back to the waterfall (still called Bassin Bleu by the local guides, see the previous post), so they offered to take us out to "the big rock." It was about 15 minutes of walking, and it was a big rock, exactly as advertised. It was also a little anti-climactic, but again, we made the most of it and took a bunch of pictures.

If you look in the lower left corner of this photo, you can see a person in a yellow t-shirt, and slightly to the right, a person in a blue t-shirt. That's the guide and Emily, and it gives a big of scale to the scenery! These are enormous, daunting mountains and valleys, and yet people live, travel, and cultivate them.

This reminds me of Switzerland, only it doesn't have the Alps behind it.

Someone is building a house here. You can get a sense of how steep it is from this picture, but it's not really sufficient. This house will sit along a ridge with a path that serves as a pretty important thoroughfare running right up against it. On the other side, it's a pretty steep, grassy drop.

Our fearless guides, Homer and Olivier, posed with the big rock.

Ian and Guita took a sweet picture on a smaller rock.

And Lucky, looking like a complex mix of sweet and tough!

I'll finish this up with some photos of home life: first, Hugo was helping me get in the yoga mood a while back.

Guita was SO TIRED on Christmas Eve after her big hike and a trip to an action-movie-and-sushi party that she fell asleep before she had her bedtime cookies. She rallied to eat a few later on.

Sammy got a catnip sardine snack set for Christmas from his Grandma, and he loved the sardines! I love the concentration you can see in his ears!

And finally, Betsy the Big Truck got whacked by a tap-tap a while ago while Ian was driving home one night. She wears her scar proudly, and no structural damage was done to her or to Ian, thank heavens.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Port-au-Prince: History in Gingerbread Houses

Most of modern Port-au-Prince is built in steel rebar and concrete, but 100 years ago, people built beautiful wooden Victorian-style houses out of wood. The remaining wooden houses are called "gingerbread" by the locals, and they are iconic for history-minded Haitians. The gingerbread houses have a number of features that make them well-suited to Port-au-Prince: they are wood so they bend and give in earthquakes; they have steep pitched roofs so that hurricane winds blow against them rather than up and under them; and they are built for the heat of the Caribbean with long louvered windows and flowing inside galleries with high ceilings to help air circulate. They were initially built in the era when the middle class was moving away from living above their shops, so they are concentrated in a few older neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. Many (most?) have been destroyed and replaced by cheaper, modern cinder block constructions.

The Embassy arranged a small tour to visit four gingerbread buildings in Port-au-Prince one weekend with a guide who works for the NGO FOKAL. The trip was fascinating (I love architecture as an expression of culture) and helped remind me that there's more to the city than rubble and poverty. Most of the buildings are, obviously, privately owned, and owners often don't share FOKAL's sense of urgency about preserving the buildings. Our FOKAL guide is passionate about the quality of the gingerbread buildings and said that they "didn't kill anybody in the earthquake," unlike the concrete structures that have no flexibility and fell in across the city.

Originally the gingerbread houses were built entirely of wood, but over the 30 or so years that people built them, they became first hybrids (one floor wood, one floor brick) and then almost pure brick. Not surprisingly, the brick gingerbreads and the hybrid gingerbreads fared worse in the 2010 earthquake. On the other hand, the all-wood gingerbreads are being devoured by termites and damaged by humidity.

For a more professional story on the gingerbread houses, see the Wall Street Journal article:

This is the flagship house under re-construction by FOKAL. The bottom of the house was brick and stone and crumbled during the earthquake. The upstairs is wood, and while it's in one piece, it has serious structural issues - not just that it's ground floor is no longer functional. Artisans in training have been working with international teams of architects and builders to develop the skills to restore these houses, and they're just about ready to start serious work on this one. FOKAL's idea is that a trained cadre of builders will be able to market their skills and talents and make a career out of restoring and maintaining these old houses.

This is the top of the house. You can see the details in the trim (hence the gingerbread moniker) and that the wood isn't all in bad shape. Unfortunately, the rest of the house has suffered the ravages of humidity and bugs.

Gingerbread houses are built above the ground to protect them from water. This is a consistent characteristic in Port-au-Prince's gingerbreads. You can see that the foundations have suffered as well.

This is what the stairs going to the second floor look like. We climbed what was basically a makeshift ladder to get to the bend in the stairs to see the total failure of the support structure. The stairs are more or less OK at the top, but they slope badly inward by the time they reach the bend.

I'm no builder, but I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to see this part of the stairs.

These next two photos show what the inside of a house looks like when it's held up by jacks and planks.

We moved on to this old house, occupied by its owner. She uses it as a school of dance and wants to leave it to FOKAL when she dies so that it will be protected. This house came through the earthquake more or less unscathed, but in later photos you can see that the wood is not what it needs to be.

This is the sign for the dance studio. The giant hook is to latch the shutters.

This is the ballet verandah. I might have stayed interested in ballet if I'd had a barre like this one to practice on! Note also (you can barely see it) that the wall of the house along the right side of the photo shows some strands of barbed wire that serves to help bind the stucco-like outside layer of protection to the wood. In the places where it has failed, the wood and the barbed wire are exposed.

This is an old mirror in the house. The structure is planks, inside and out, and on the inside - at least in this house - the planks are uncovered. You can also get a good sense of the height of the ceiling in the first floor rooms.

This is looking more or less from the front door straight through the back door. The ground floor is basically three partially separated rooms. This original "open floor plan" allows more air to circulate and helps keep the houses cool.

Here we see the ravages of bugs and time on the wood. This is part of the staircase, and the crack goes deep into the wood.

Castel Fleuri (not my picture, this is pre-earthquake) is literally across the street from the dance studio. Unlike the dance studio, it is a brick gingerbread that suffered significant damage in the earthquake. It was built during the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915 - 1934) and served as headquarters for a number of important people. Some time after the Marines left Haiti, the National Palace was bombed and burned, and this house served as the president's home for a time. It is currently privately owned but leased by the German embassy to be the home of the German-Haitian foundation. Castel Fleuri means (roughly translated) "flowering castle."

The sign is still in one piece....

But the front of the house is in shambles. Compare this to the stock photo and you get a sense of the damage of the earthquake. Note, though, that the house is still standing. While it's not structurally solid now, everyone who was in the building made it out alive during the earthquake, including the elderly gentleman who was working on the roof when the quake struck.

This is the state of the front door.

And slightly redundant, perhaps, the once-grand and sweeping front steps.

This is the back of Castel Fleuri seen from the dance studio. Note the angle of the corner turrets!

Castel Fleuri from the back of the house. It's in rough shape, but the people who love it are working to save it. The German-Haitian Foundation is in container offices along the side of the house.

The same wrecked staircase in profile.

This gingerbread house is significantly less grand than its fellows, but it has the benefit of being fully restored, lived in, and loved. The house is surprisingly spacious inside, and again, all the rooms flow into one another. It's a little weak on privacy, and some of the interior labyrinth rooms haven't got enough natural light for my taste, but it's fully modern and quite wonderfully comfortable looking.

The house still has the long, louvered windows (no glass in that window) to keep the air moving and the bright, hot light out.

And a darling young dog who wanted rather desperately for the two little girls who were with us to chase him and try to get his bone. Sadly they declined, but he was very sweet about that bone.

The owner of the house had a small collection of beautiful hand-painted chairs. They're very basic structurally, and in local tradition they're called "gwo bouda" chairs -- that's Creole for "big butt" -- because the chairs are wide and low and strong. The painting was really cool, and I hope we'll get some before we leave!

Most private, middle class houses in Port-au-Prince have big, solid walls. The gingerbreads are no exception. This house had whitewashed walls with vegetation, and the sun was hitting this leaf in spectacular fashion. I couldn't quite believe the color green!

One of Port-au-Prince's most iconic buildings is the Hotel Olaffson, site of Graham Greene's novel "The Comedians" (and ostensible site of the movie of the same name). The hotel remains a heart center for people who want to see and be seen by a certain kind of tourist (low profile power players, usually not with NGOs).

The hotel is too big to photograph well, but I got the front views as well as I could.

This photo is the same little tower as the previous photo, but it's taken from above and behind. Note the (lack of) structural support to the terrace floor of this little sky gazebo!

All of the rooms in the Olafson are named for the famous people who slept there. So, literally, John Barrymore slept here! As did Leah Gordon (though presumably not at the same time).

Jean-Claude Van Damme and David Blundy slept here....

And Jimmy Buffett slept here. There are lots and lots of other rooms, obviously, and all are named for famous(-ish) people. There was a Mick Jagger suite by the pool, but it's been remodeled and renamed since then.

The stairs in the Olafson are slightly more solid than the stairs at the dance studio, but they're still pretty slanted and a little bouncier than I normally prefer my stairs. The second floor is also quite hollow-sounding, but it's still solid and quite pretty. And iconic.

The band RAM plays at the Olafson every Thursday in the area just below this mural. This is looking across from the second floor gallery at the opposite wall; there is a first-floor courtyard space below.

In the Olafson dining area, the old meets the new!

This part of the group that took the tour. The little girl is sad because her sister got to use my camera and she didn't!

Haiti has gorgeous roosters that stomp around people's yards and public places. The grounds of the Olafson are probably pretty nice for chickens, but we do regularly see chickens, roosters, and chicks along the sides of busy roads.

Here's a bonus chicken picture: that motorbike is carrying a driver, a woman, and an enormous number of live chickens, probably all on the way to market. While we were following them, roosters would occasionally move their heads and try to start something with their neighbors, but even they seemed to understand the futility of it pretty quickly.