Cuba: Seeking Music, Finding Muses


Yo vengo de todas partes,
Y hacia todas partes voy:
Arte soy entre las artes,
En los montes, monte soy.*

                                                          –“Versos Sencillos” (José Martí)

I.  Landing in Havana

Flights to Cuba on United Airlines hold a special place in the heart of Newark Airport’s Terminal C. To find it, you have to walk in, join one of the myriad kiosk lines labeled “Step 1” to check in for your flight; find out that you can’t do this because your flight is an exception; ask someone what to do, and then be directed to take a left and keep walking until you reach the big blue wall which is the terminus of the terminal itself. There, they make sure you have a visa (which I do), and sell them at $50 a pop if you don’t.

The flight itself is an uneventful, if cramped, three hours, with no checked bags, and consequently no Jordan-style luggage snafus.  It even lands early. The Cuban government demands no fewer than three customs and immigration forms to be filled out, which the friendly officer barely glances at before taking my picture and welcoming me to Cuba–the site of my latest learning sojourn.

Thanks to the Michelle T. Riecke Fellowship from South Orange and Maplewood’s Achieve Foundation, and the generous support of dozens of contributors (friends both old and new) via, I’m here to participate in ThisWorldMusic Cuba, an eleven-day study abroad hands on exploration of Afro-Cuban music, dance, and culture. My hope is that this experience will broaden my knowledge in these areas and ultimately enrich my World Literature and Literature of the African Diaspora courses, perhaps even moving beyond my classroom as I share my knowledge with other educators from various disciplines throughout my school and district.

flags casa

I step out of the arrivals gate and almost immediately spot Claire Kelly, one of our tour facilitators, and the founder of Educational Experiences Abroad. She is hard to miss, beaming and blonde, holding up a ThisWorldMusic/EE Abroad sign. Wasting no time after the niceties, Claire directs me to the money changing bureau, where I hand over my dollars for CUCs. The CUC is special Cuban currency whose value is closely tied to the U.S. dollar which, thanks to a mark-up of at least 10% for exchanging American money, means that you’ll get less back in in CUCs than you gave in dollars. I end up with .87 cents on the dollar and count myself lucky.

Eventually we meet up with Jeremy Cohen, ThisWorldMusic’s founder and CEO, along with more of the ten other participants, and head over to Casona de Calzada, our casa particular. Casas particulares, private homes or other properties let out for temporary lodging, are Cuba’s answer to a dearth (and consequently the expense) of traditional hotels. Ours is a grand colonial affair with 30-foot ceilings and a courtyard festooned with tropical plants.  Needless to say, for me, it’s love at first sight. From there it’s more introductions to the remainder of our group, some course logistics, a quick walking tour of our Vedado neighborhood, and dinner at El Cimarron, the highlights of which are a terrific house band and flan that makes me forget I dislike flan.








II.  A New Day in the Old City

Our first full day begins with a communal breakfast at the casa– fresh fruit, juices, bread, coffee, and delicious made to order eggs. As I mentioned previously, The house drips in 19th Century vintage character, from its tiled, bright tangerine and green leafy courtyard to the eye-catching curios that make up its decor– everything from the dolphin motif on the dining room chandelier, to the single slave manacle, chain still attached, displayed almost matter-of-factly on the wall.

Our dancing and drumming classes officially start tomorrow. There will be two hours of the former each morning, followed by the same for the latter in the afternoons. For now though, we’re offered some context. We drive about fifteen minutes into Old Havana, and our first stop is Casa Museo de Africa, a museum dedicated to preserving, and gratifyingly, CELEBRATING Cuba’s African heritage. The museum’s director, Alberto Granada, admits that this proud spirit of African consciousness was not always the case in Cuba, as he guides us through the exhibits, which attest to the undeniable contributions of Cuba’s enslaved people to both its cultural and national identity.  The exhibits themselves, though relatively modest, are authentic– most of them gifted to the island by various countries on the African Continent.








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Professor Granada’s tour is followed by what I consider the highlight of our first day, the first half of a talk by Professor Alberto Faya on the origins and evolution of Cuban music and its contribution to what he calls “Cubanity.” This is the resultant sound of Cuba brought about by the core rhythms and musicality of West Africans, with added influence from Europe and even Asia (e.g. the double-reed horn). The professor’s “lecture” takes the form of brief segments of history, frequently interspersed with excerpts played by the live band of musicians he’s brought with him, which coupled with his own impressive singing voice, serve to bring the music to remarkable life. To top things off, there are dancers as well, helping the professor illustrate various styles of rumba, and thus provide a preview of what we’ll be learning in the ensuing days.

After lunch (and another delicious piece of flan), we spend the afternoon walking through Old Havana, guided by Alvin, our wonderfully adept 25 year-old interpreter, cum tour guide, cum cultural liaison. Alvin is not only delightful, he is also a wealth of information, speaks several languages fluently, and as a talented vocalist, has an impressive repertoire of show tunes and other songs. Summer is low season, but Old Havana, with its fashionable shops, cafes, and MSC cruise ship docked in port, is clearly the place to be for the well-heeled foreigner in search of La Habana at her most beguiling, but also at her most fantastic (in the literal sense).


Our gang in front of Havana Cathedral on our first full day.

III.  Drumming to the Beat of a Different Dance

I learn a lot during the course of our practical lessons over the next few days, mostly about how my brain works– and how it doesn’t. In short, and seemingly incongruously, I am coordinated enough to dance a rumba, but playing one on a drum is another matter.

The rehearsal and performance space at CFN

The morning dance lessons are quite literally hot, but also exhilarating, surprisingly advanced, and exhausting. The studio has no air-conditioning, and the few fans installed high on the walls do nothing more than tantalize with suggestions of a cool breeze. There are also, curiously, no mirrors, so it’s impossible for any of us to get an audience-view of what we’re doing. And there WILL be an audience, as the program culminates in a group performance for our hosts– the administrators, artists and instructors of the internationally-renowned  Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba (CFN). This prospect, coupled with the absence of mirrors, makes the approval and positive reinforcement I get from our two dance teachers from the Conjunto all the more rewarding. Owing to the vital inter-connectedness of dance and percussion to Afro-Cuban (originally Yoruba) spiritual tradition, during the course of the week, we learn and rehearse two dances dedicated to two Orishas/Santeria deities: Eleggua, the playful, impetuous, and childlike messenger saint who opens and closes all doors, and the machete-wielding Ogun, the spirit of war and iron workers. The third and final dance we learn, of course, is the rumba, the signature (and notoriously suggestive) Afro-Cuban dance.


Rehearsing the Rumba

Our rehearsals are accompanied live by the Conjunto’s band of master musicians, two of whom, Guillermo and Israel, are also our percussion instructors. Drumming class number one starts off with a whole group lesson, followed by breakout sessions, with groupings determined by skill level. I, along with two other participants, test into the euphemistically labeled “moderately paced” class with Ysrael. Likewise, the idea of percussion class becomes “moderately” intimidating for me the day after I bomb the introductory rumba pattern, which, though my hapless attempts seem to inspire visible consternation from my teacher, he is no less determined to teach me.  Israel is demanding, but also remarkably patient and encouraging, so I keep pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming away, despite my growing suspicion that I will never get it.   I’ll admit too, that his insistence that I keep trying also reminds me of a certain teacher-blogger who’s fond of telling her students that just because something is hard doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it. So, determined to improve, I start making videos in order to practice during my limited down time (but I also start fantasizing about being relegated to the nonexistent tambourine section of our makeshift band).








Here are the three rumba rhythms:

1. Yambú – This is the slowest and goes hand-in-hand with the less “naughty” couples version of the dance. It’s associated with older dancers, and it’s also the one we’re slated to perform.
2.  Guaguancó – (WAH-WAN-KO) – Like my class, is moderately paced:) and incorporates the male dancer’s attempts to “inject” (vacunao) his female partner with suggestive thrusts of his hips, hands, or feet.  She in turn must coquettishly resist this, using her skirt to shield her virtue, so to speak. The idea is that if either party wins this game (s)he can demand anything from his/her partner.
3. Columbia – I’m tickled at the thought of sharing this one with students and fellow staff members at Columbia H.S. It’s  is a quick-footed country rumba traditionally danced by men.

The Yambú  is the slowest, and supposedly the easiest to play, but because of what I can only call a right/left brain disconnect, it’s also my nemesis. When we eventually move on, Israel is both highly amused and clearly confounded by my ability to pick up the more difficult rhythms of the latter two rumbas, particularly the third and most complex, with relative ease. Of course, there are other percussion instruments. Besides drums of various types and timbre, all of which would be considered sacred in the context of an actual religious ceremony, the clave (klah-vay), and even the catá, drumsticks tapped rhythmically against a cylinder play important fundamental roles in our syncopated symphony. We’re all required to learn these as well, and I’m pretty consistently decent at everything except for the actual conga drum (and begin to dread hearing the word “tumbadora” in conjunction with a pointed look in my direction).


Learning to play the Guaguancó meant I had to “distract” one hand from what the other was doing.

Before long, I come to realize that despite my attempts to dodge it, I’ve become obsessed with the conga, and tend to define my percussion lessons by the little I can’t grasp vs. the great deal I can– and already have– in the span of a few days. And I ultimately begin to see this as the character-building experience it is. I’ve never played a drum in my life, and never imagined that it might involve a set of skills that I didn’t necessarily have, or which wouldn’t come out naturally once I got started. Otherwise, I probably would have thought twice about signing up. I realize (not proudly) that I really only want to try “new” things I’m likely to be good at. However, my percussion experience has made me see things from the perspectives of my struggling students, particularly the ones with learning disabilities, or who may just respond better to teaching styles that don’t happen to be mine.  In other words, I’ve been reintroduced to the cycle of growing and being cut down to size that essentially defines learning.

IV. El Chino and the Orishas

In this detail from a spectacular mural in Matanzas, the Orishas appear to be crossing the Atlantic to follow their faithful. Note, for example, Elegua’s hook, Ogun’s machete, and Yemaya’s fish.

On Wednesday afternoon, we take a 30 minute ride out to the neighborhood of Regla to visit the home of a Santero, or priest of Santeria ( the Yoruba-based Afro-Cuban religion also known as Regla de Ochá, La Regla de Ifá, or Lucumi) who has invited us into his home to share his life story and offer a first-hand look at the icons of his spiritual practices. For this part of the program, he has asked, and we have all agreed, 1) to dress modestly (as for a house of worship), and 2) not to post any pictures or videos we take of him or his home on public or social media forums. Thus the photos or videos included here for illustrative purposes come from other excursions.

Our tour bus pulls up in front of a small two-story home located on a relatively narrow street, both of which belie the religious, if not physical stature of its main occupant.  Claire leads the way, calling out “Chino!” at the front gate, in the absence of a doorbell, and I’m more surprised than I should be when our affable, elderly host turns out to be of obvious Asian descent.

El Chino introduces himself as the 68 year-old descendant of Afro-Cuban slaves on his mother’s side, and of Cantonese slaves on his father’s. If any of this seems incompatible, that in itself may be the point about Afro-Cuban culture and its vital connection to Cuba as a whole. A visibly Chinese Yoruba priest who happens to also attend Sunday Catholic mass fits right into the tradition of syncretism which has allowed West African-based religions to thrive under the yokes of slavery and colonialism, thereby giving Cuba its unique character and sound.

The first thing he shares with us is the sanctuary that holds intricately beaded representations of the major Orishas, each occupying its own designated shelf space. Obatala, the supreme Orisha–creator of humans and the god of purity, peace, and kindness–is represented entirely in white; he is the only Orisha who carries a cane (which operates as more of a scepter). We find out later, when a group member questions a depiction of Jesus that hangs prominently in another room, that Obatala in Santeria is syncretized with Jesus in the Christian tradition. The shelves below Obatala are designated spaces for other central figures in the pantheon, including Yemaya, represented in blue and white–the goddess of the sea and salt waters; and her younger sister Ochun, Cuba’s patron saint–the goddess of beauty, sexuality, fertility–whose color is yellow. They are, like Obatala, syncretized with Christian figures: Yemaya, the universal mother, is syncretized with The Virgin of Regla (a black madonna), and Ochun, with Our Lady of Charity. The corners of his living room house similar shrines for Elegua, and for Chango–the god of thunder–among others.

Our host leads us into the inner rooms of his home, sharing family photos and stories, and pointing out (but not necessarily introducing) two of his godchildren, spiritual protégés, who are engaged in the exacting task of creating more beaded shrines. El Chino’s most recent godchild, his nephew, also appears. Dressed entirely in white from head to toe, he has undergone the seven-day initiation into his faith, and must subsequently wear nothing but this white garb for a year. Thankfully, El Chino tells us with a humorous gleam in his eye, his nephew is also a gifted tailor.

While such excursions are sandwiched between our dancing and drumming classes, they are designed to introduce and/or reinforce context for these, and our visit with El Chino is no different.  Thus, the most delightfully engaging moments of our visit occur when he casually distributes instruments among the group, with the expectation that we play along while he sings and accompanies himself on the drum.

As the only Literature teacher (and only non-music teacher) in the group though, I long for words– stories, poems, a sacred text– to tie this all together, so I ask our host about these.  His response is rather ambivalent, citing the very many books which have been published on Santeria that all but ignore the vital connection to community inherent in building a faith– a connection which is most often manifested by passing things down orally.

V.  Obsesión and the Evolution of the Oral Tradition


Obsesión, Cuba’s most successful hip-hop duo, live in a modest top floor apartment in the same Regla neighborhood as El Chino.  Like old friends, we’re invited to sit around their living room, where we meet Magia Lopez, the female half of the duo first, quickly followed by her partner, Alexey Rodriguez, who joins us a bit later with their producer. Also present is Alexey’s mother, who as it turns out, is also the star of one of their most successful music videos.

Magia and Alexey are cool and low-key, with easy smiles; the only outward sign of their celebrity is just that–a sign– the blue and yellow mural (pictured above) emblazoned on the wall of the landing right below their apartment.  The sentiment under their name is KRS-One’s proverbial wisdom translated into Spanish:  “Rap is something you do.  Hip-hop is something you live.”








Magia does most of the talking, speaking at length about their challenges as Cuban hip-hop pioneers in the ’90s, everything from jerry-rigging antennae in their attempts to tune into 99JAMS in Miami, to trying to gain a platform as a legitimate artform, to being careful not to dance themselves out of their only pair of shoes. The last of these issues being most indicative of the Cuban economic depression of The Special Period, which while it left them short on shoes, inspired many more ideas, and paper and pencil were cheaper.

They give nods to their American influences, everything from Soul Train, to artists like Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and The Roots.  When they play us a couple of their videos,  their sound is clearly reminiscent of all the above, with a little Arrested Development thrown in.  So what makes their hip-hop Cuban?  For starters, they laugh off any suggestion of artificially incorporating congas or claves into their music in order to sound “authentic.”  On the other hand, they’re not inclined to sell-out on Spanish, a language they love, and have inspired their non-Spanish speaking fans to learn.  In other words, Obsesión keeps it real and like anyone who truly lives hip-hop; they speak truth, tackling issues such as racism, colorism, poverty, and sexism in their music.  In essence, they are living proof of Professor Faya’s assertion earlier in the week that “rap is very antique in Cuba,” and, when done well,  is merely the latest, most powerful means of relating the Afro-Cuban experience.

Watch below, “Los Pelos” (The Hairs):

VI.  Power! Energy! Passion!


Performing Ogun

Alvin is a revelation. Going above and beyond his duties as an interpreter, by week’s end, he has danced with us, drummed with us, definitely sung with us–and has emerged (with his favorite refrain above) as our biggest cheerleader.

I, for one, need all the power, energy, passion, and prayer I can muster as Saturday morning’s showtime draws near.  Dance class has been a lot of fun, but Lazara and her assistant, Yosiel, are not going easy on us, and by Thursday, we start to exchange nervous glances when they’re still adding to the choreography.  This is particularly nerve-wracking for me because they’ve seen fit to place me front and center of all our dance performances.  I immediately turn to  my companions on either side of and behind me, and admit to having mostly faked the choreography (except perhaps for the rumba) up to this point.  When someone behind me laughs good-naturedly and points out that they’ll be following me as “the leader,” I get a quick, yet profound reminder of the difference between standing in the front and actually leading.  Meanwhile, Israel, who has mercifully assigned me to play my beloved clave for our percussion performance, has somehow endearingly morphed into a dance coach–by turns giving me thumbs-up signs, or gently chiding me about mis-handling my (make-believe) machete during the Ogun dance.  Just before true panic sets in however, I obtain the choreography from someone who’s had the wherewithal to record it, and spend part of Friday night really learning it.








Saturday morning is nothing short of glorious.  We spend the first hour dress-rehearsing our dance and percussion routines, and then perform–quite well, if I may add–for an audience that cannot be more supportive or appreciative.  Jeremy, our real leader–and my gallant rumba partner–had promised as much, but nothing beats the affirmation that comes with seeing an audience of world-class dancers and musicians genuinely root for you.  Our rumba, in particular, turns into something magical when the entire CFN company joins the cantor, Ariel, in the live call-and-response soundtrack for our dance. That one moment alone may be worth the trip.








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But there’s more magic to come when CFN take the stage in magnificent form, leaving little doubt about the power of music and movement to transcend the physical and spiritual realms.

That afternoon, we head back into Old Havana to meet and literally learn at the feet of the dancers of Peña Bailadores de Santa Amelia. A tradition dating back to the 1940’s, these elder devotees to jazz and dance get together for their legendary Friday dance parties, representing every style from tap to salsa.  They perform first, and then invite us to join in.  I think I can speak for the entire group when I say that dancing is the last thing we want to do after the morning’s showcase, but we do, and the experience is priceless. My first dance partner is in his 80s and stands about three inches below my 5’4″ height, but that doesn’t stop his feet, nattily encased in black and white spectators, from moving like Michael Jackson’s.  Then my second partner, similarly suave in blue, gives me the best salsa lesson I’ve had to date (and pays me the highest compliment by declaring me Cuban on the inside).  Most of the dancers are in their 70s or 80s, with the oldest still cutting a rug at 90! A few more rounds of dancing, and I am exhausted, while both my partners and their counterparts look as fresh and full of energy as they did when we walked in.  In the end, this hour-long dance party–and this days-long musical journey–teaches me much more about developing a state of mind than anything about dancing or drumming.  I will be forever grateful to them, and to Cuba, for the lessons I have learned, and for the ones I will impart.








What I Learned on This Sojourn:

1. The indispensable link connecting the literature of the African Diaspora to its music and dance is both real and vital. It’s so much more than the hunch I had when I included all that music in the course curriculum.
2. There is a lot to learn in Cuba about ourselves as Americans.
3. ThisWorldMusic and EEAbroad are wonderful partners in learning; I would go anywhere again with Jeremy Cohen and/or Claire Kelly without hesitation.
4. Friends are indispensable on a trip like this, and my group quickly felt like my friends. To any one of you who shared with me–a room, a laugh, ideas, meals, pictures/videos, notes etc.:  You have at least indirectly contributed to this blog post, and I thank you sincerely. I hope I’ve done justice to our shared experience.
5. My sense of wonder is under-utilized.  Things happen that surpass all boundaries of understanding– and we should be prepared to experience them without expecting to.








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*The second verse of José Martí’s “Versos Sencillos” (“Simple Verses”) translates to:

 I’m a traveller to all parts,

And a newcomer to none:

I am art among the arts,

With the mountains I am one.




The Arab Spring Break: Egypt Edition


“I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it…My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

— Langston Hughes

This promises to be a long post.  I’ve tried hard to condense it, but this experience is resistant to brevity.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t attempt to encapsulate a trip of this length or magnitude in a single post, but the exhaustive, thrillingly hectic pace of this particular sojourn left me little time for daily contemplation and on-the-spot writing.

In his parable, “Half a Day,” Egypt’s Literary Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, surrealistically reduces the entirety of one boy’s bittersweet formal schooling to just that– half a day.  Suddenly, I find I can now relate to the protagonist, an old man by the end of the story, when he exclaims: “Good Lord!…How could all this have happened in half a day, between morning and sunset?”  In many ways, visiting Egypt was less vacation than education, and that “half a day” will stay with me forever.

I walked alongside my father, clutching his right hand. All my clothes were new: the black shoes, the green school uniform, and the red cap. They did not make me happy, however, as this was the day I was to be cast into school for the first time.”

Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel sits in slightly faded five-star splendor across from the Pyramids at Giza. Entering the lobby from the nearly hour-long ride from the airport, my first impression was that I’d landed in a latter-day Bogey movie replete with Western expats hiding out from the law, and about to unleash their mischief on an unsuspecting North African crossroads. The lobby is huge, busy, buzzy, and emanates an occasional waft of the second-hand smoke I’m no longer impervious to thanks to decades of successful American re-conditioning. Check-in is mercifully pain free, as one of our assigned tour leaders has already collected our passports to facilitate things.

“I took a few steps. Then the faces of the boys and girls came into view. I did not know a single one of them, and none of them knew me. I felt I was a stranger who had lost his way. But then some boys began to glance at me in curiosity… .”


With our wonderful traveling companions at Edfu Temple. (Photo courtesy of Russell Wasden)

Our time in Egypt is an organized tour with Encounters Travel which we purchased via Living Social. This is the first such tour T and I have done since China, so we know to expect certain benefits (lots of bang for your buck), as well as potential pitfalls (a horrible group? endless forced shopping excursions?). We meet our fellow travelers early the next morning, and I’m immediately thankful, at the very least, that we look like (Obama’s) America. The thirteen of us are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, married, single, and are made up of both younger, and more seasoned travelers. Our guide and soon-to-be guardian angel, Maged, or “Magz,” dubs us his latest group of “Babaghanoush,” and we begin.

“From the first moments I made many friends and fell in love with many girls. I had never imagined school would have this rich variety of experiences.”

The first stop, of course is the Pyramids, where T is game for every optional add-on, from climbing inside the Cheops, the largest of the three major ones, to riding a camel, even though we both swore we’d left our camel riding days back in Jordan. Apparently this time he wants to gallop. I stand by obediently recording this latest fascination until my Lawrence of Arabia gallops right out of the view finder, astride a camel aptly named Dennis the Menace.


It’s an incredibly busy day, and as we go from the Pyramids, to the Sphinx, to a quick lunch stop at the shawarma stand, to an all too brief, yet wonder-full visit to the Egyptian Museum, our little community begins to form, the pace is set, and the race is on. Starting with an eye-opening drive through Cairo’s busy and colorful streets (one lingering memory is the man I see on camel back, reins and plastic satchel in one hand, and a cell phone held to his ear in the other), we set off on an exhaustive and seemingly nonstop trajectory of discovery.

“Our path, however, was not totally sweet and unclouded…” 

This day, however is also Palm Sunday, and halfway between the museum and a (thankfully not-so-forced and ultimately fruitful) shopping excursion at the papyrus shop, one of our tour mates checks his phone and reads of the lives lost senselessly in the bombings of two Coptic Christian churches earlier that day.  We are all fine, and as far removed from the bombings as anyone can imagine, but the tension and silence on our little white bus become almost tangible, as we simultaneously reach for our devices to reassure all those back home who told us not to come.  The irony though is that we all hail from either the greater New York or Washington D.C. areas, arguably the top two terrorist targets in the world.  But Egypt, as our guide intimated earlier at the museum, struggles from poor marketing, and when that happens, the bad news tends to hold sway.

“We played all sorts of games…we sang our first songs. We also had our first introduction to language. We saw a globe of the Earth, which revolved and showed the various continents and countries. We started learning numbers, and we were told the story of the Creator of the universe. We ate delicious food, took a little nap, and woke up to go on with friendship and love, playing and learning.”

The sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan is comfortable, but about as no frills as our tour accommodations get.  We bond over this with good humor, from making the best of the airplane-style meals–I try, and fail, to transform my nondescript beef dish into boeuf bourguignon by pouring wine into it– to the impromptu slumber party that begins just as introverted morning people like me have called it a night.

Aswan is a sweltering contrast to Cairo’s comfortably cool temperatures; the heat envelops you the moment you step onto the train platform.  Everyone here, at this Egyptian/Nubian intersection, is likewise noticeably darker.  After a brief visit to the Aswan Dam, we take a boat to and from Philae Temple, a love gift to the goddess Isis, before checking into our hotel, the Movenpick Aswan, which with its incredible 360 degree view of the Nile, is also accessible only by boat.

Later on, at the market, T and I are immediately adopted by dozens of overzealous Nubian merchants whose cousins we’ve suddenly become.  With my now pretty highly developed immunity to over-shopping on overseas trips, I’m only drawn to the spice shops with their intense fragrances and colorful displays.  Dinner–ranging from mixed grill plates of beef, chicken, and lamb, to liver and pigeon, all served with lentil soup, rice, and vegetables –is at a local restaurant. And in true old-school fashion, dessert is a tour mate’s birthday cake, served at a party to which the whole class is invited.


Spice market in Aswan

The next day begins with an early wake-up call for the trip to Abu Simbel, which is at once a testament to Ramses II’s assertion of power over Nubian lands, and his devotion to his queen, Nefertari. With its picturesque location on the banks of Lake Nasser, as well as its imposing and majestic beauty, Abu Simbel is one of the visual high points of the tour for me.


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In the afternoon, we board Captain Tarek’s Nubian felucca sailboat, where most of us have opted to spend the night.  We are also given the honor of being invited into his family’s home.  This is a unique and singularly picturesque experience that’s difficult to sum up in words, but so too is the fellowship we develop by playing “Heads-Up” and a low-tech version of “Name that Tune” while docked on the Nile for the night.

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From the incredible peace on the felucca, we head to Edfu and Kom Ombo Temples, where, apart from seeing some pretty neat alligator mummies,  I recall feeling hot, and, to a certain extent, hounded. Everything is for sale here, and understandably so, especially in light of  the much-diminished tourist market.  On the whole however, the touts aren’t as bad as I’d experienced in some parts of India, for example, and tended to pay heed to a polite yet firm “la shukran” (no thank you).

It’s late afternoon when we arrive in Luxor after a five-hour drive. Luxor is vibrant, as hot, if not hotter than Aswan, and apparently, we’re warned, rather short on honest taxi or horse-drawn carriage drivers.  Another interesting note is its attractiveness to retired expats from the U.K., looking for lives of ease and luxury courtesy of the depleted Egyptian pound.


A scheduled evening tour of Luxor Temple leaves us just enough time to shower, change, and grab a bite at our latest hotel, the Steigenberger Nile Palace, before we head out.  The atmosphere at Luxor Temple that evening is another awesome experience that I would do more justice by  showing rather than telling:

The next morning ushers in yet another pre-dawn wake up call for a hot air balloon ride that’s eventually canceled due to weather conditions. This lily-livered blogger is secretly thrilled.  That only leaves the Valley of the Kings and two more major temples before Hurghada, and the hedonistic promise of unlimited food, hard and soft drinks, and best of all, two full nights of sleep.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Valley of the Kings, a series of pharaohs’ tombs buried deep (or high) into some pretty formidable rock formations,  leaves me little to share, since any visual evidence that I’d actually been there is strictly forbidden.  I opt to enter two of the three free tombs, and while I’m less than impressed with the first, especially not for the physical effort it took to get into it, the other turns out to be a celebration of the kaleidoscopic brilliance and longevity of Ancient Egyptian art.

The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, however is another matter.  Here, at the feet of Egypt’s  greatest female pharaoh (one of only three, and Cleopatra’s predecessor by 1400 years), and at what should be known worldwide as the ultimate shrine to girl power, pictures are encouraged and invited.  Here are my favorites:


Girls bounding out of Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple

The amazing Karnak Temple’s ornate gargantuan columns and remaining multi-ton obelisks also testify to Hatshepsut’s legacy, as well as the miracles of Ancient Egyptian ingenuity and architecture.

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 “The bell rang, announcing the passing of the day and the end of work.”

As the day comes to a close, Hurghada shines ahead of us like a beacon as we pile into the little white bus for another three to four hour drive.  We are trying to make the dinner buffet before it shuts down at 9pm. I take advantage of the ride to update our family on our whereabouts –and yes–to sleep, if only in spurts.   We make it to the Jaz Makadi Oasis in time for dinner, its expansive yet quiet Mediterranean style lobby offers the first hint of a slower pace, and at this point, a welcome departure from the briskness of the previous few days.  The full day and two evenings we spend here are unexpectedly cool, limiting our beach time in the Red Sea, but they also provide necessary down time for serious fun.

I said goodbye to friends and sweethearts and passed through the gate.”

The tour begins and ends in Cairo; so too does the dream of two full nights of sleep  when I find out the time of our flight back from Hurghada.  Since rest remains elusive at best, upon our arrival, we opt into a tour of  Old Islamic Cairo, with its 11th Century gates and vibrant souk at Khan El Kahlili.  I quickly realize that I would not have wanted to sleep through this; while I’m not as much into shopping overseas as I may have once been, I remain fascinated by markets.

A walk through a real (as opposed to an exclusively touristic) local market reveals the spirit and energy of a place and its people.  While there, I manage to track down some papyrus bookmarks for my students,  which for many, may be their first, if not only, tangible token of Africa;  I connect with a young  Sudanese woman who gives me my first henna tattoo, and we communicate well enough with her broken English and the universal language of smiles;  our group stands for a while in the main square, facing the enormous speakers of an imposing mosque, as the call to prayer is broadcast for all to hear and to heed–or not.  Most significantly, however, we stop for lunch.

I tend not to post many food pictures on this blog, not because I don’t love food, but because I’m still working through my tendency to eat more quickly than I can photograph it.  In this case that works out just fine, since the restaurant in question, the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe, named for the selfsame literary inspiration for this post, doesn’t allow pictures anyway.  For the record, I have a delicious liver sandwich (Tommy, our guide for the day, seems genuinely impressed by my choice) and some excellent falafel, while T orders the legendary Egyptian koshari and his umpteenth chicken shawarma.  We wash all of this down with tall glasses of excellent lemonade with mint.

The whole time, however, I’m also geeking out about having stumbled into this unexpected literary excursion.  Mahfouz’s books and pictures adorn the inlaid wood walls, and rumor has it, he used to dine here daily.  As a Literature major and World Literature teacher, it doesn’t get better than this for me, except for the nagging feeling that I cannot remember which of his stories I’ve taught. That is, until I sit down to write this post.

“How could all this have happened in half a day, between morning and sunset? I would find the answer at home… But where was my home? I hurried towards the crossroads…”

Like the boy’s experience in Mahfouz’s story, my half a day of learning in Egypt is suddenly over, when it feels like it had just begun, and our little troupe disperses affectionately at the airport.  I had to go home to make sense of it all.


1. I’ll be paying heed to those travel deals from Living Social, Groupon etc.  This tour was a tremendous value for what we paid.

2. Great companions make for great tours.  T and I REALLY lucked out, both with our lovely group and with our exceptional guide.

3. Despite the aforementioned temperature fluctuations in different regions, spring felt like an ideal time to be in Egypt.  My packing wasn’t perfect, but in the end, I’m glad I brought 1) older thick-soled, comfortable shoes that I was okay with dumping after they’d served their purpose 2) clothing I could wear in layers, and 3) scarves and a sun hat.

4. Egypt awakened in me a kindred feeling. Like me, she is still digging, learning, and growing.  The ancient artifacts continue to be unearthed, even as the 21st Century moves along at top speed.  This explains the feeling I often got while there that I was living in the distant past and in the present all at once.

5. I loved every moment of Egypt. Period. Despite the tragic events on Palm Sunday, I never felt unsafe, and would not have wanted to miss going. What I learned in books or saw in movies did nothing to prepare me for the real-life magnificence of a civilization that goes back much further in millennia than the U.S. does in centuries.  This is an incredibly humbling and necessary consideration.

The Arab Spring Break: Jordan Edition


Checking in luggage is the rookiest of rookie travel moves.  I did it, and paid for it. Blindsided by an overzealous agent at the EgyptAir counter at JFK, who insisted on weighing my prized koi fish orange spinner carry on, and finding it five kilos overweight (EgyptAir has a strict 8-kilo carry-on weight limit), I relented. I did so instead of redistributing my stuff with T’s; instead of putting on a couple more layers of underwear as outerwear; instead of doing anything to avoid parting with my bag–especially with a connecting flight, and especially, as it turns out, on EgyptAir.

Upon boarding, of course, I only to had look above my head from the 38th row in outraged fury at the population of clearly overstuffed and over-sized bags that had managed to make it onto the aircraft unweighed. Needless to say, eleven hours later, after disembarking in Amman from our connecting flight from Cairo, I found myself standing at the carousel like a jilted bridegroom, waiting a little too long, and with a little less hope, each time I looked toward the door that promised to deliver my beloved.

Short on time since we would only be in Jordan for three nights, we made our way to Petra anyway, accompanied by our incredibly patient driver, Ahmad.  While the airline finally found my bag the next day, they don’t deliver, and I would have had to drive about four and a half hours to Amman to retrieve it, so for three nights, I literally had the clothes on my back, a leggings/skirt combo I’d impulsively stuffed into T’s carry-on at the last minute, and later, two pairs of camel motif harem pants I overpaid for at the Petra bazaar (another rookie move).

We got our first glimpse of Petra, the ancient “lost” city, the final world wonder to cap off our list–and our primary reason for visiting Jordan– by the light of the stars above and candlelight below. The 17 Jordanian Dinars(JOD) each we paid for Petra by Night was worth it, if just for the experience of being in that ancient space in a blanket of darkness that was almost as spectacular as the candlelight display. Once inside the Treasury area, there was a performance of vocal and instrumental Arabic music, which added to the sense of mystery and mysticism.

Petra in the daylight hours doesn’t disappoint either. This time we were able to enter using our Jordan Passes (highly recommended), which cover the cost of Jordan’s entrance visa plus a number of other attractions around the country. Petra can be a grueling walk or hike, depending on how much ground you want to cover, so we started early (around 7:30 AM) as is usually recommended, though not as early (6:00 AM) as some insisted.  Staying near the Petra Visitors’ Center in Wadi Musa is the best way to facilitate an early start, which is great for having the site to yourself–ahead of tour groups, cruise excursions, and school trips. We booked an overnight stay at Sharah Mountains Hotel just up the hill from Petra. Owned and operated by a group of affable brothers (say Hi to Mahmoud and Khaled for us if you go), its rooms are sparkling clean, include a hearty breakfast, and best of all, they offer free trips to and from the Petra Visitors Center.


Our day in Petra started off well enough, including repeatedly and successfully fending off the army of Bedouin (or possibly Gypsy, as one acquaintance remarked) vendors who practically insisted that we ride their particular conveyance–carriage/donkey/camel–through the site, and up to the Monastery. By late midday however, we lost any conviction we’d had to walk the long way back to the visitor’s center and ended up hitching a ride on two camels, which, based on the exorbitant cost, must’ve been  Petra’s version of UberBLACK.  We got a pretty cool picture out of it though, and camel riding turned out to be a lot more fun and manageable than I’d imagined for a shrimp like me, who’s also scared of heights.


From Petra, we took a 90 minute taxi ride to the Wadi Rum Desert for some “glamping” and a taste of Bedouin hospitality at Attallah Alblwi’s Bedouin Lifestyle Camp. Let me start by saying that I am not into roughing it, especially under the aforementioned luggage-less circumstances, but this was a singularly unforgettable experience.


Saying goodbye to our hosts at Bedouin Lifestyle Camp.

Wadi Rum is the famous backdrop for films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, and the two most recent installments of Star Wars, so if its coral colored sands look familiar, that’s why. To call it a spectacular landscape borders on understatement. Our stay began with a nearly three-hour tour of the desert’s highlights, which include a dune for sand boarding, and a few vistas that will be recognizable to serious film buffs. From there, it was a brief orientation to camp, which meant getting our tent assignment and checking out the shared (and remarkably clean) bathroom and shower facilities. Then it was a short drive out to view the sunset, followed by an authentically prepared Bedouin meal of chicken, rice, vegetables, soups, and salads shared with a couple dozen other guests.  All the while our hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome, even capping off the night with a lively musical performance, shisha, and sweet, addictive Bedouin tea.  I left thinking it was easy to see how this sublime setting could make you feel like you’d left planet Earth.

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We spent our final day and evening in Jordan briefly touring the town of Madaba, visiting Mount Nebo, Moses’s final resting place, and T was able to take a quick dip in The Dead Sea before we headed into Amman for the night.


  1. Jordan is joyful, welcoming and SAFE; someone we met described it as “a quiet house surrounded by noisy neighbors” and I couldn’t agree more.
  2. Jordan is expensive, so bring your wallets.  The USD to JOD exchange rate, as I write is $1.00 to 0.71 (JOD).  Buying a Jordan Pass though (see above) will definitely help with this.
  3. Many people suggest spending up to a week in Petra alone, before seeing other sights, but I think this depends on your travel personality/preferences.  For us, a night and a day were quite enough, and while we enjoyed Petra, we walked away feeling more fulfilled by Wadi Rum.
  4. We spent an afternoon and evening in Amman, which we felt was plenty.
  5. If you want to “swim” in the Dead Sea, you can either book a room, or buy a day pass at one of the resorts in the area.  While there is public beach access, there are no public showers to wash off all that salt.
  6. When I finally did get my bag back, it had a damaged pull-handle, and a few skid marks on its previously spotless and beautiful tangerine veneer.  SO THE ALL-IMPORTANT REVIEW LESSON? I WILL NEVER, EVER CHECK LUGGAGE AGAIN.

As always, please comment, like, or follow…Next stop, Egypt!!

Shall We Gather at the River?: Gullah Voices and Echoes



“My tale begins just before the rising of the sun…Dayclean, we call this, when the day is new and the world is made fresh again.”
from God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man by Cornelia Walker Bailey

Katie Underwood is ten years old. Named for the intrepid midwife who delivered countless babies in the Gullah Geechee communities that dotted Sapelo Island, Georgia for most of her 90 plus years, Katie Underwood, the ferry, is the newest public conduit across the river between Sapelo and Meridian, on the mainland, and a fitting namesake for a woman who devoted her life to ensuring safe water-borne passages.

It’s dawn, or dayclean in Gullah, as we await the ferry, or at least it was when our bus left Savannah at 6:15 AM, and we’ve come in search of “traditions and transformations.” Admittedly though, the only transformation that interests me this early in the morning is the one at the bottom of the extra cup of coffee which I neither have, nor would dare drink. Public restrooms on the island are scarce; we’ve been warned.

Meanwhile, I look around, or more accurately, I look down into and then across at the river, and suddenly understand Johnny Mercer’s compulsion to immortalize his love for these waterways in song. I’m referring of course to “Moon River,” the great American torch song to Mercer’s “huckleberry friend.” Unlike Mercer however, I lack both the music and the lyrics to do it justice, so pictures will have to suffice.

An hour later, the Katie Underwood delivers us safely to dry land, where we climb into a cheesebus that drops us onto the awaiting bosom of Sapelo Island.


The Gullah/ Geechee people of the Sea Islands along the shores of Georgia and South Carolina are remarkable for having retained so much more of the West African (specifically Sierra Leonean) culture of their ancestors, relative to other African Americans, due to their insularity and isolation from mainlanders. As one of a group of teachers taking part in a University of Connecticut/National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar called Gullah Voices: Traditions and Transformations,  I’ve spent nearly a week immersed in Gullah culture. And immersion, both literal and figurative, is the centerpiece of Gullah life. It began with the West African Bakongo worldview of the ancestors who believed that the ocean represented an equator of sorts, simultaneously connecting and separating the physical realm above ground from the spiritual/ancestral one below. This is a philosophy that lent itself easily to the rites of Christian baptism, and as exemplified by Geechee elder and cultural historian Cornelia Bailey’s account of her own baptism, this mini excursion to the spiritual world was taken very seriously in her community:

“If I was frightened, it was just a little bit. I didn’t let anybody know about it. The deacons said I was ready, so I had to be ready. I was saying to myself, ‘I don’t care if it kills me, I’m coming out of that water with a smile on my face.’ And I did. All they could say about me was, ‘That Cornelia was ready to be baptized, alright.’ ” (Bailey, 167)

Mrs. Bailey herself is the reason for our early morning pilgrimage to Sapelo. She is the penultimate Gullah cultural representative in a week that has been rich with them, including everyone from eminent historian, Dr. Emory Campbell to celebrated Gullah artist, Leroy Campbell. After stops at Behavior Cemetery, the Sapelo Island Post Office, the Reynolds (as in the infamous tobacco Reynoldses) Mansion, and at one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen, it’s lunchtime, and our yellow school bus, illogically yet symbolically peopled by teachers, pulls into a clearing furnished with “haint” blue painted picnic tables that are practically draped in the overhanging moss from the live oaks that surround them.

Mrs. Bailey appears at about the same time as our homemade lunch of barbecued chicken, salad, green beans, and rice. Having spent 334 pages with her via her memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, I feel like I already know her. I envisioned her as a tall woman, and I can see from a distance that she is. But as she saunters in, greeting us in her contralto drawl, and sporting a floppy turquoise sun hat that is at once functional and flamboyant, I’m certain that I know her. In Cornelia Bailey, I recognize my mother, her mother, and my great-grandmother– all the female elders I grew up with who were or are (unknowingly) themselves griots: story-keepers and storytellers of our family and our culture’s lore.

During my time in the seminar, I’ve been struck not only by the richness and resilience of Gullah culture, but also by the fact that it’s endangered.  Sapelo Island’s welcome sign lists a population of 70, but we’ve been told that the number is now closer to 40.  What young people there are, eventually ride the Katie Underwood, or its equivalent  out to greener pastures, leaving the older folks and much of their heritage behind.

Perhaps because of this, near the end of our time with her,  I feel compelled to ask Mrs. Bailey who Sapelo’s next griot will be, and she readily offers some possibilities among her children. But somehow this perfectly satisfactory response leaves me unsettled, and I suspect it’s because the question and its answer hits too close to home, giving voice to my fear that when the time comes for my own family, if that mantle should fall on me, I may not be ready to be baptized.



More images from my “Gullah Voices” experience appear below.  As always, please feel free to comment and/or share.

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Lost and Found: What I Learned from this Sojourn


imageChinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has one of the most powerful endings in literature. In this novel which chronicles the dramatic rise and ultimate downfall of Okonkwo, a black Ibo clansman, the story is literally and figuratively taken over in its final chapter by the District Commissioner, an unnamed, incredibly minor white character, who is unequivocally, by that point, in charge. Despite the complex two-hundred plus page narrative about Okonkwo that precedes the District Commissioner’s late entrance into the book, he concludes that “The story of this man..,would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate.” And so begins, as Achebe suggests, the “chapters” or “paragraphs” perpetuated as complete stories of Africa in the West, by the West.

The chapter or paragraph that is Haiti’s Western narrative begins and ends with the classic “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” line, an idea that defines Haiti’s value strictly by dollars and cents, and which goes hand in hand with the abject desperation and violence which is the only Haiti we see in the media. It’s the one image that is now permanently cemented in people’s minds since January, 2010, when Haiti made news yet again for its seemingly uncanny ability to attract bad luck. This is why, even as a native-born Haitian, people wish you “safe travels” instead of “bon voyage” when you tell them you’re going to Haiti, why it took decades for my family and me to return, and partly why some dyaspora like us never will.

Haiti is poor. This is not about disputing facts. It’s hard to overstate its challenges, which I’ve now seen firsthand with grownup eyes. The long tradition of Haiti as a political disaster lives on, and we’ll leave it at that.  Port-au-Prince is incredibly over-crowded, still shell-shocked from the quake, and parts of it (and Cap-Haitian, to a slightly lesser extent) are buried under seemingly impregnable walls of trash.


We rode around the city with my parents, listening to their sighs and lamentations for the city they remember, which while not great, was better, cleaner, and more orderly. The metamorphosis of PauP’s Grand Rue drew the most gasps, as they mourned the loss of what was once a street of shopping plazas with honest-to-goodness store windows, and one which was also home to the now defunct Boulangerie St. Marc, the grandest, best bakery in town.


Grand Rue in its heyday.

Their reactions confirmed that my cherished childhood memories were not so fantastical. The spirited, yet peaceful excursions with my grandmother to church, for treats, or to designated outdoor markets really did (and could) occur once upon a time. “Markets” are now everywhere, spread out like weeds, burning their garbage, and impeding progress in every sense of the word.  There are so many pop-up markets in PauP that  it’s not uncommon to see rows of neophyte merchants lined up by the dozen, each selling an identical stack of mangoes.

In short, there are people everywhere, with little to hang onto but hope.  One of my parents’ friends joked that everyone left the city after the quake, only to return a short while later, with fifteen friends apiece.

But Haiti is also rich, and that is indisputable as well.


The ruins of King Henri Christphe’s Sans Souci Palace in Milot, Haiti

As I’ve tried my best to convey in earlier posts and in the ensuing images in this one, there is beauty everywhere, even among the ruins, old and new.  In fact, with seemingly so little imposed order, there’s something beautiful and miraculous about the fact that large cities, like PauP and Cap-Haitien, function at all–that despite the chaos, people find ways to get around, get along, and get by.  My favorite example of this is an outdoor community workout session that takes place along the sea wall every morning across from Auberge du Picolet, our hotel in Cap-Haitien.

And of course, life is a little simpler and slower in smaller cities and towns, as reflected in this market scene in Gonaives:

Haiti’s scenic beauty, despite environmental ravages, is also remarkably lovely, and certainly not hard to find if you’re looking.  This collage doesn’t even include the incredible  beaches.

But, of course, there’s more….

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Ultimately, Haiti can no more be defined by a chapter, a paragraph, or what writer Joel Dreyfuss calls “a cage of words” than Achebe’s Okonkwo can. And in these times, when the richest country in the Western Hemisphere finds itself so poor in spirit, there’s a lot we can learn from the intrepid people of the poorest.  Haiti needs  to have its full story told, and the world, particularly those of us who are of Haitian descent, deserves a more complete narrative as well as a bigger picture. I’m so glad our family returned to find these for ourselves, so we can spread the word.



Triumph On The Mountaintop: Citadelle Laferrière, a Reflection in Photos

Photographs and Thoughts by Guest Blogger, Elijah Marshall

La Citadelle Laferrière or Citadelle Henri Christophe, or quite plainly, The Citadelle, is the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere. Built under the decree of the king of Northern Haiti, Henri Christophe, in 1820, it is situated 3000 feet above sea level atop the mountain Bonnet a L’Eveque, about 17 miles south of the city of Cap-Haitien and approximately five miles up from the town of Milot. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, the Citadelle’s construction was completed after Haiti won its independence from France through a fourteen-year slave rebellion. Its construction was no easy feat for an under-resourced workforce of former slaves. Fortunately for King Henri, his men were flush with one of the most indispensable resources of all, ingenuity. Using blood and gelatin made from animal hooves to create mortar, and virtually any sediment that could be found, the Citadel was successfully constructed as a formidable deterrent and strategic wartime structure unlike any other in the New World.


When I first saw pictures of La Citadelle Laferrière online, prior to my journey, I envisioned a structure with the function of a slave prison. It looked so practical by design with such a remote location, that I could not help but picture a dense, onyx cube structure tasked with keeping poor, oppressed souls within its confines. Further learning revealed a radically different narrative to me, one of triumph and ingenuity. As fascinating and awe-inspiring as it was to read of the ambitions of the Northern Haitian King, Henri Christophe, and the self-freed former slaves who built La Citadelle Laferrière with a religious fervor, it is something entirely different to step through the open spaces and wide corridors of the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere.


Thousands of rounds of cannon ammunition that would have surely wrought sheer hellfire upon any would-be aggressors. Remarkably, not a single shot was fired from La Citadelle Laferrière. A true testament to the message both the fortress and the Haitian Revolution sent to the Western World.



A mountaintop view unlike any other in Haiti. If so much as a palm tree was felled anywhere in Cap-Haitien, King Henri’s guards would surely know.


This particularly imposing heavy wooden door adorned with iron studs was re-created by UNESCO. Observers will also notice a multitude of different brickwork styles utilized to complete the Citadelle, a true testament to the determination and ability of the former slaves who erected the fortress.


An open courtyard-like space near the top hosts several light artillery armaments for display purposes. Upon viewing it, I noticed the diversity of the masonry that went into building this area and many like it throughout the fortress. The sediment ranges from grainy to brick-like to natural.



This photo strikes me with its metaphorical significance. Here, a cannon, instrument of war and resistance, lies dilapidated atop a broken support beam. Both are worn down by well over a century of exposure, but before them lies a blinding light. It is the light of freedom from bondage, a presence that makes it clear that you no longer have to fight for your basic right to experience liberty despite how broken down your prior struggles may have left you. This is the ultimate sign that the fight for liberty and justice is always worth the struggle.



Short stairway to one of La Citadelle Laferrière’s many spacious corridors. One thing that struck me about the La Citadelle was how easily it facilitated movement. I have visited castles and cathedrals with incredibly narrow and winding pathways, restricting movement to an ever cautious creep. This fortress built by former slaves, however, allowed an impressive fluidity of movement for myself and ostensibly for the thousands of soldiers who kept watch on all of Cap-Haitien .



The very top of La Citadelle Laferrière is a true wonder. It sits among billowing, grey clouds of hot vapor and invokes visions of mountaintop world wonders like Macchu Picchu. The lush greenery of the ground beneath this magnificent summit resembles fresh Caribbean carpet grass on a rainy day. It’s a sight that must be seen with one’s own eyes.


Three cannons stand guard atop the summit serving as the first would-be line of defense against any who would try to retake Haiti.


A view of a small but intricate canal system buttressed by stone and mortar supports.


A solid bronze cannon captured from a French vessel. Though imposing, it was never again to fire a single round after its capture.


Four light artillery cannons displayed in what was likely, at the time, a rather strikingly decorated chamber. Haitian artisans have always prided themselves on their style and craftsmanship. I’m sure that standard was no different even for former slaves.


Heavy cannons, like the one captured from the French, affixed to an adjustable instrument for the purpose of aiming. A heavily armed, strategically placed mountaintop fortress operated by the same force that ousted the French from Haiti? No wonder no one dared to attack La Citadelle Laferrière!

Beneath the Mountains Lies Pleasure Valley


Deye mon gen mon
(Beyond the mountains, there are more mountains.)

—  Hatian proverb

I now know that I needed to come back because my childhood memories of Haiti never included mountains. As a literature teacher, I make it a point to emphasize the importance of context in a piece of writing–historical, cultural, and political, as well as verbal. But geographical context is often just as important in a text, sometimes taking on a role that’s as vital as the characters themselves. What is A Streetcar Named Desire without the contrasts represented by New Orleans, Louisiana and Laurel, Mississippi, or The Tempest without Prospero’s enchanted island? In a similar way, Haiti’s story, and my family’s own, is incomplete without mountains.

The word Haiti (Ayiti) literally means “land of (high) mountains.” Returning the island, at least in name, to their Taino predecessors, similarly enslaved, and murdered wholesale, was the ultimate act of poetic defiance by the leaders of the new republic. Our long drives through Haiti during the past few days, however, also suggest that our slave ancestors may have wanted to honor a topographical landscape that clearly favored them in their long struggle for independence. It doesn’t take long to realize that The Haitian Revolution could not have succeeded without miles of dense foliage, dark skin that doubled as camouflage, and lots and lots of mountains.

In Port-au-Prince and Petionville, certain streets are so steep that my little niece and nephews would lift up their arms roller-coaster style and let out a “wheeeeee!” when our car descended them. Traveling to Jacmel in the South and to Cap-Haitien in the north involved watching nervously, as our trusty driver, Webert, wound his way up, down, and all around narrow mountain roads with spectacular drop-offs, many of them unencumbered by guard-rails.

The most nerve-wracking of these rides by far was the one to Plaisance-du-Nord, our family home. I have grown up being told that we are moun nan mon, mountain people, or more literally “people in the mountains,” and I guess I somehow got this intellectually, but it really didn’t register until yesterday when I realized that Plaisance (which means pleasure in French) is really a tiny and isolated valley, tucked beneath some rather prodigious peaks.

Since there’s hardly anyone left that my parents know in Plaisance, our time there was short, just long enough to glimpse the cemetery where my great-grandparents, paternal grandmother, great-aunt, and numerous uncles and cousins are buried, as well as to drive down the small Main Street to see what had become of the houses my family had once called home. The most important of these by far, was my great-grandparents’ home, one that I remember pretty well, even though I was five when I was last in it, and as the setting of my mother’s and grandmother’s stories about my great-grandmother, Virginia, who I’m also fortunate enough to remember.



This is what’s left of the house my great-grandparents built to raise their family. Neither the day-glo colors, nor the makeshift store on the front porch would have been to their liking, but this was a house of love when it belonged to our family, and I hope that spirit continues to sustain those who call it home today.


No one, at least in my lifetime, called my great-grandmother Virginia. She was  La Mère, Gran La Mère to her dozens of grandchildren, as well as to me, the eldest of her great-grands. She was, as the nickname suggests, the consummate mother. And perhaps because she is no longer with us, her presence is all the more palpable, and her legend has only grown with time. Gran La Mère, like the mountains that surrounded her, was a force of nature, a strong, tall woman, who overcame being orphaned as a toddler to grow up and marry my great-grandfather (appropriately nicknamed Papa Le Père ). She worked tirelessly with him on their small farm, gave birth to twelve children–my grandmother being her seventh child, and first girl to live through childhood–and ultimately survived outliving all but five. She loved a good song, a good story, and liked to show off her English–swear words she’d picked up from the Marines during the American Occupation. Most of my mother’s stories are enhanced by her humor, and punctuated with her wisdom.

Looking now at that tiny house, in the tiny valley which was once hers, it’s hard to imagine that it could ever contain her sublime magnitude. But in the end, it turns out of course, that it couldn’t.

Click on images below for enlargements and captions.



Plaisance’s Catholic Church, and the center of all things spiritual in my parents’ childhood and adolescence.

Hot and Cool in Jacmel


I’m writing this post perched on a canopied four-poster bed that rises so far off the floor that, at 5’4″ tall, I either need a running start and a leap, or a chair to climb into it; Ive opted for the chair. The yards of thick mosquito netting that normally drape down from the canopy are now piled high atop it, as we’ve learned the hard way that it’s an excellent way to repel ventilation, as well as bugs.

My husband knows and tends to indulge me in this fascination I have for hotels with “character,” along with all things historical and vintage. Back in 2009, for example, when we were getting ready for a trip to Peru the following summer, I became enamored with the Gran Hotel Bolivar in Lima–named interestingly enough, for one of Jacmel’s most important 19th Century guests (see historical note below).  The Gran Hotel Bolivar is a real throwback constructed in 1924, which, in its heyday, had hosted the likes of Orson Welles and Ava Gardner. And the rate of $35.20/night total for two rooms certainly didn’t hurt. I remember the four of us walking into the lobby, with its cathedral ceilings and threadbare carpets, its old-world formally trained and attired staff showing us to our (gigantic) rooms, each with faded bedspreads and claw foot tubs attesting to their spooky, antique glory. Long story short, the whole thing turned out to be a little too Norma Desmond, even for me, and we hightailed it out of there, enveloped in a few chills.

Chills however, have been at a premium these past two days in Jacmel; here at the historic, non-air conditioned Hotel Florita, things have only been cool in the most figurative sense. Since I was basically left to my own devices in planning our family trip to Haiti, I couldn’t resist the Victorian grandeur of the Florita, so with a few clicks on an online travel site, I booked the eleven of us on a journey back to 1888.

The town of Jacmel, like its signature hotel, exists in a state of elegant, if somewhat faded splendor.  Founded first by the Spanish, and then later taken over by the French in the 17th Century, Jacmel was a thriving, wealthy shipping port, and the first city in the Caribbean with electricity.  Jacmel owes much of its beauty to its French Colonial architecture, and a walk through its streets will leave you with a distinctive New Orleans vibe.  Today, it’s basically a large artists’ commune, best known for making miracles with papier-mâché.

The Florita itself is the definition of shabby chic, although I wish it were less self-indulgently so. While the entire space is practically a gallery walk, and the staff and the lobby/restaurant/bar area are all wonderful, certain details are hardly ideal, if not lacking altogether. Replacing missing doorknobs, shower heads, or refining obvious room repairs so that they’re more aesthetically pleasing would take nothing away from the hotel’s charm, and would add significant value to guests’ overall experiences. Well, that and some step ladders.

Check out this slideshow for more, and click on all images throughout the post for details:

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* Historical note:  Jacmel played host to Simon Bolivar, arguably its most famous guest ever, in 1816, while he was trying, unsuccessfully at that point, to liberate South America from Spanish Colonial rule.  Having been rejected by Jamaica, Haiti, then governed by Petion, welcomed him with open arms, and secretly provided him refuge, along with ships, weapons, ammunition, and even a printing press for propaganda– all under the condition that he would free all slaves in the areas he managed to liberate.  In fact, Venezuela’s flag, whose blue and red stripes were inspired by those of Haiti’s own, was designed in Jacmel.  While Bolivar kept his promise to free South American slaves, a debt black South Americans owe to Haiti, he also ultimately refused to recognize the legitimacy of his former benefactors, in deference to Europe and the United States.


Baptism at Bassin Bleu

(Featuring guest blogger, Samuel Marshall)


Hiking to the Bassin Bleu Falls

As my Dad, uncle, grandfather, and I tumbled through the rocky municipal river running through Jacmel, I finally knew what my gym shirts felt like when I threw them in the dryer on its highest setting. But even as the uneven terrain catapulted my head into the roof the our van every ten or so minutes, I still couldn’t manage to avert my gaze from the awe inspiring scenery of the Haitian mountainside. The hike to Bassin Bleu is lined with tropical fruit trees and towering palms that provided occasional shade during our trek towards the waterfall. From high-hanging deep brown cocoa beans to shy branches whose leaves receded at the slightest touch, the wonder of Haiti’s flora never failed to provide me with an incentive for moving forward.

When our guides finally announced that we had arrived at the waterfall spring’s entrance– a steep cliff with a rope to repel down on–my first thoughts were to question Grandpa’s safety. But to my surprise, my grandpa’s rigorous workout regimen and my slight fear of heights allowed him to complete his twenty or so foot descent more easily than I did. But spending those two interminable minutes suspended parallel to a cliff face was a small price to pay for admission to what would turn out to be the most beautiful swimming pool I had ever seen. Although the recent heavy rain had rendered the water a deep green as opposed to its usual crystalline blue, it didn’t lessen the relaxing effect diving into the cool water had on me, and doubtlessly on everyone lucky enough to experience it.


Bassin Bleu, still gorgeous in green.

Art and Craftsmanship: Port-au-Prince Day 2


The facade of a shop at the oil drum artists, collective at Noialles, Croix-des-Bouquets.


This will likely not be my last post about art and artistry in Haiti. Art, of both the high and low varieties abounds, and surrounds you even along the dusty, ruined streets that must have once had sidewalks. Artists display their originals, or original copies, on everything from clothes lines to fences. The ubiquitous “Loto” stands, beauty parlors, and barber shops all have multicolored hand-painted and hand lettered signs. For the beauty purveyors, also throw in elaborately rendered portraits of idealized clients groomed to the last follicle, and you get the picture (check some out here). Unlike in the States, I’ve yet to see laminated glossies of the latest hair styles or the seemingly de riguer 50 Barber Styles for Men chart pasted to a store window. My mother, the daughter of a carpenter, consistently marvels at workmanship of the beds, cabinets, and bureaus lined up for sale in the literally open market. What happens when it rains? I wonder aloud. She doesn’t have an answer. Then of course, there are the post-psychedelic tap-taps and remarkably, even a few painted portraits, either commissioned or inspired by, the latest flock of presidential candidates.

In terms of craftsmanship, Barbancourt Rhum, a company that pretty much defines Haiti, is as good is it gets. Haitian kids like me grow up looking at that distinctive gold-capped brown bottle with the beige label long before we’re allowed to drink. It shows  up in cases as part of everyone’s souvenir loot from home; it, along with fried pork griot, is the centerpiece of any party; and at year’s end, it’s incorporated into the thick, sweet Christmas cremas, which itself is poured back into the recycled bottle. So getting a chance to visit the Barbancourt distillery yesterday, capped off with a “rum buffet” at high noon, was a singular treat.

From there, we headed to the Musée Canne à Sucre in Tabarre, a restored sugar plantation, whose indoor dining room pays tribute to another of Haiti’s passions, music. The walls are lined with portraits of all the greats, while outside, a live band played traditional folk songs. Finally, because things like this happen in Haiti, we were all asked to listen to and judge, American Idol style, a young singer looking for a job.  She, of course, was wonderful.

Our last stop was the recycled metal drum artists’ collective in Noailles, Croix des Bouquets. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.

The Magical History Tour: Port-au-Prince, Part 1


The grounds of MUPANAH


We spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday, our first two days, reuniting with friends and family who had either never left Haiti, or who had chosen to return out of love, for work, or both.

Among the former group, were my aunt, and three of my mother’s cousins, the aforementioned pressers of uniform pleats, who had been teenagers when I saw them last, and who are now in their sixties. Talking with them made me realize just how easily a conversation in Haiti weaves the mundane with the magical. One moment they’d be sharing tricks on how to cook the distinctly Haitian black djon-djon mushroom, and how long one should ferment pineapple rinds in clairin (basically moonshine liquor) for optimal flavor and potency, then they’d bring up the wells on our family property, then the water in the wells, then the turtle who reportedly took up residence in one, and ultimately make their  way to the spirits who were known, in the collective Haitian consciousness, to inhabit all wells and bodies of water.

This brings us to the magic of Thursday morning, when we started the guided portion of our trip. There is relatively little tourism infrastructure in Haiti, and there was no way we were going to wing it with my parents and small children in tow, so I contracted with a local tour operator, Tour Haiti, to both get us and show us around. I’m hanging out in the lobby of the Karibe Hotel waiting for our guide, when in walks Romel Jean-Pierre, a young artist and filmmaker I met last year when he’d visited my school, and had popped in to astound my Literature of the African Diaspora students and me with his talent, eloquence, and self possession. I approached Romel, just wanting to say hi before it dawned on me that he was going to be our PauP guide! The coincidence was both remarkable and fortuitous, as he managed to endear himself to my entire family by the time we made it to the day’s first stop, The Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, or MUPANAH.

The MUPANAH has a small, but impressive collection of Haitian historical artifacts, from the anchor of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria, to the silver gun Roi Christophe, King of the North and builder of the Citadelle, used to commit suicide and evade capture by rebel forces. Then there’s the spectacular gold, jewel-encrusted crown of Emperor Faustin I (1849-1859), and not to be outdone, the unequivocally Haitian  juxtaposition of “Papa Doc” Francois Duvalier’s stethoscope with his personal machine gun, its body and barrel beautifully encased in a shell of polished wood.

Our next stop was a mercifully short visit to the Marche en Fer, or Iron Market, with its endless rows of paintings, vaudou paraphernalia, wood carvings, and other souvenirs for sale. The chaos both in and around the Iron Market is almost surreal. In fact, our tour van got into a fender-bender with a tap-tap, who was determined to pass us on the right, all in full sight of a traffic cop, who pretty much encouraged both parties to keep it moving. Needless to say, our friend the tap-tap driver, in true abracadabra fashion, careened off, never to be seen again.


Then we visited Atis Resistans,  Romel’s creative home-base, and a vital testament to the power of found objects, reimagined and repurposed.

We then stopped for lunch at The Hotel Oloffson, one of Haiti’s most distinctive architectural gems, and as the backdrop of Graham Greene’s The Comedians , a must-see for literary geeks like me. Honestly, the food wasn’t the best, but the atmosphere was second-to-none.  The Oloffson is feast enough for the other four senses, and perhaps the sixth as well.  Driving up to this particular hotel, and being greeted by the sounds of drumming,  which continued sporadically throughout our meal thanks to dance lessons in the courtyard, seemed entirely a propos.



From there, it was off to a scenic mountain top overlook at Boutilliers, and then home to rest.