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: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703551304576261440650733446.html

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.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Alaska Part I -- Seward

We flew into Anchorage on a Saturday night, just before a major windstorm blew in. We stayed in a dank and musty airport motel and crashed pretty quickly after a pub/ microbrew dinner in town. The next morning, it was dark and howly, and we debated whether we'd be safe driving along the Turnagain Arm (famous for Beluga whale sightings) and over the mountains south towards Seward. Nobody in Anchorage seemed to have any ideas, so we hit the road and had an uneventful but blustery drive. When we got to Seward, it was cold a rainy, so we went straight to Ian's favorite destination, the aquarium.

The Alaska Sea Life Center is a great aquarium with lots of local animals, including the baby walrus that was just transferred to the aquarium (or the zoo?) in New York. We saw him flopping around and getting picked on by the larger and even more cuddly other baby walrus.

Captain Zaur!

And Captain Runyon! We didn't even have to wait in line or trample any little kids to get these pictures. Seward was pretty quiet on our first day.

Jellies! They had lots, we took photos, this one came out OK. Keep reading for the wild jelly we saw later on.

There's more to Seward than the Sea Life Center. This is an oil pipeline that loads ships at the docks. Seward is also a major jumping off point for cruises.

There's still a strong local color element too. We saw this "phoenix" taxi, covered with swans, at the grocery store and then a few more times in town.

Seward's cute harbor. Even though it looks idyllic, most of the boats are clearly working boats. Seward is at the top of Resurrection Bay, a long, narrow, north-south fjord that is protected on both sides by high, steep mountains. Resurrection Bay doesn't freeze in winter and is the central driver of Seward's economy.

Seward as seen from the water. The town is built on the estuary of Lowell Creek (see next photo) that used to come rushing down from the mountains behind the city and deposit a nice layer of silt that became land. Unfortunately, Lowell Creek changed its route every year and caused lots of terrible flooding and damage in the town. In the 1930s, a Works Project Administration team dug a tunnel to divert Lowell Creek away from Seward. Now the creek rushes down the mountain,, blasts through its tunnel, and makes a pretty spectacular little semi-urban waterfall on the edge of town.

Lowell Creek, blasting through its tunnel. This is in pretty high flood stage, and the water was pretty dirty. On later days the water got clearer and the volume decreased a smidge. It's really impressive when you know the back story!

This is our hotel cottage. It's really and truly right on the water's edge. This photo is taken at low tide; at high tide the water splashes up on the little front porch!

One of the benefits of being so close to the water is the wildlife. This is a bald eagle that came to check out the tidepools. He stayed for about 30 minutes.

There were also sea otters everywhere. Here's a close-up!

And splashing together. Sea otters are adorable.

This is the road to our little cottage. It's also right along the water and is pretty wet at high tide!

Another view of the road to our cottage. That's an RV. I like picture because of the sense of scale it gives. Alaska is huge in all directions!

We had planned a great 6-hour boat tour from Seward to see the glaciers and lots of marine life, but the storm had churned up the ocean so badly that even the cruise ships couldn't get in to Glacier Bay. Apparently outside of Resurrection Bay, the seas were reaching 28 feet -- entirely too rough for a tourist catamaran. So we went on a truncated tour of Resurrection Bay, and it was sufficiently cold and windy to be very impressive. We had a wonderful time, and eventually the sun came out and made it quite pleasant if windy!

Looking south down Resurrection Bay. The next shots are epic landscape shots, and most of them won't have captions.

This is looking out at open ocean. It looks serene in the photo, but the catamaran struggled with the rough sea.

The "Exit Glacier" is actually two glaciers that collided. The dark line down the middle is the place where they met. That's about as close as we could get to a glacier on this trip!

As wild and huge and empty as it feels, Alaska still has traces of human occupation in unlikely corners. This is an old mine shaft. Some unhappy person went into this tiny hole in the ground, about 6 feet about the ocean level, to look for gold at some point. Of all the things I'm glad I'm not, miner is high on the list.