As fall turns to winter in the Northern Hemisphere, travelers have always looked to the Caribbean for a little warmth. But it wasn’t just exotic beaches that were advertised; the region’s exoticized black bodies have always been a part of its allure. I’ve got mixed feelings about some of these. What do you think?
After a devastating earthquake one year ago, the first colony in the hemisphere to throw off the yoke of slavery – a place that has forever been punished for that courageous act – is still in major need of financial and physical assistance. I have asked two of my fellow bloggers, native Floridians, and all around Fly Sistas (Dr. Brandi Reddick, The Green Pharmacist, and Frenchie of Black in Cairo) who have intimate contact with the country to recommend legitimate organizations that are worthy of your help:
The NEGES Foundation, a small non-profit, environmentally-focused organization with which Dr. Reddick worked back in 2009 (remember, grass-roots organizations need help, too).
Volunteers for Peace, a coordinating organization that arranges placements for volunteers interested in doing work on the ground.
Partners in Health, a medical NGO with a long reach and proven results.
Oxfam International, a highly-regarded development-focused NGO.
Prayers and peace to the millions of Haitians and their families who have suffered in the wake of the earthquake, as well as to the thousands of foreigners working to help make Haiti a sustainable nation (big ups to Brazil for its role in assisting Haiti).
Just this week, I had begun the preliminary planning for two weeks of volunteering this summer at an environment-focused work camp run by the NEGES Foundation in Léogâne, Haiti. Just yesterday, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the country, its epicenter only a few miles away from Léogâne, just west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. With communication lines down and innumerable casualties, this has been the worst earthquake to hit the disaster-plagued and poverty-stricken country in 200 years. According to press accounts, hospitals and other traditional disaster relief locations have been destroyed.
The NEGES Foundation, with the help of my friend Dr. Brandi Reddick of The Green Pharmacist, had been planning a summer camp for kids that focused on environmental awareness and green living, in addition to the foundation’s normal projects, which include planting trees and operating a school, community center, and Internet cafe in the town. One of the organizers, Ms. Marie Yoleine Gateau, had just spoken with me Monday about coming down to work this summer. As of now, she has still been unable to reach her family and friends in Léogâne from her current residence in New York.
The pictures in this post are from Dr. Reddick’s trip to Haiti last summer, when she first volunteered with the work camp. Her enthusiasm in describing her experience inspired me to go myself this year. When I spoke to her today, she said that most people have this abstract image of “those poor people in Haiti already suffering,” and while the poverty is real, the people still lead as normal lives as they can; most were finishing up the work-day, getting dinner started, or out playing soccer.
While I’m unsure as to the status of my trip to Haiti, I still plan on at least volunteering my voice to raise consciousness about this tragedy, and to solicit help and support beyond the brief period of newsworthiness afforded to the people of Haiti this week.
To volunteer funds, clothing, medical supplies, and/or time to the NEGES Foundation, please contact Ms. Gateau via email: p y o 1 [a t] a o l [d o t] c o m.
They say Caracas es Caracas, lo resto es montes y culebras—Caracas is Caracas, the rest is just shrubs and snakes. With serpentine highways jack-knifing, double-backing, and clinging to mountainsides before plunging through tunnels that connect the country with the Valley of Caracas, that statement is beautifully obvious. The capital of Venezuela, at once cosmopolitan and ghetto, sits at the northern edge of South America, separated from the Caribbean Sea by the looming green wall of Avila Mountain and ringed by red-bricked, ever-expanding shanties that drape the hillsides.
As the principal city of the largest oil-exporting country outside the Middle East, Caracas combined the flavor and openness of the tropics with the verve and sophistication of a cosmopolis; in the 70s, Air France even ran the Concorde regularly between Caracas and Paris. Its glory days clearly over, I was last in Caracas in 2005, when Hugo Chavez still seemed harmless and funny, with his “Bush, joo are a donkay,” and the comfortable controlled chaos typical of large Latin American cities still seemed intact.
Within the conglomeration of 4.5 million people, freeways course through the valley bordered by countless billboards and high-rises sprout indiscriminately like a real-live version of Sim City. Boisterous, loud, dirty, crowded, and hot, Caracas ain’t pretty. But it’s sexy. And what struck me most about the place was the swift friendliness (and attractiveness…hotties everywhere) of the people; how you can go up to random folks on the street doing random things, and they take you into their world for a few hours, showing you their hobbies and houses, introducing you to their friends and trying to get you drunk, their diverse interests and tastes spanning place and time. One of my friends does flatland x-treme biking while listening to Lou Rawls on MP3!
Politically speaking, I haven’t seen any of the so-called reforms Chavez has put into action to nationalize major corporations and entire industries, fight labor groups (who should be his natural allies), and essentially destroy the middle class, but from what I hear from my friends in the country, things are not going well. I had intended to return over Spring Break to compare the changes I saw, but logistics made that impossible. As much as I love Cuba, I do not believe changing Venezuela into the 2.0 Beta version is the right way to achieve social equality.
Caracas is straight hood, and besides Rio de Janeiro, it’s the only city where I actually felt nervous about my safety; stray bullets are common and crime has exploded. The city, it pains me to say, is on the type of downward slant that takes a place decades to rectify. But on the flip side, you got tan chulos in wifebeaters rolling through the city blasting the latest reggaeton or hip-hop in heavy ’83 Chevy Malibus with their brick-house chicas smacking gum in the passenger seat. The nightspots go crazy with house or salsa til sun-up. There’s ice skating on top of Avila Mountain (outdoor ice skating in the Caribbean!) and baseball outshines soccer as the nation’s pastime. Afro-Latino syncretic religion is strong, as is the obvious African cultural element to the city, from the swagger and slang of Venezuelan Spanish to the proliferation of brown faces on the streets. It’s like Harlem in the early 80s or DC in the 90s, not just ghetto, but also fabulous. There’s something appealing about having your name engraved on your belt buckle when everyone else has, too.
I think the cosmos saved me from a great life disappointment by not allowing me to find a suitable job in the city when I was searching back in 2004. I do love Caracas and would have hated to be forced out of the country when Chavez siezes all foreign-held bank accounts.
To catch some of the true rawness of CCS, look at the first few scenes from the crime drama, Secuestro Express; very much in the vein of New Jack City and City of God. Any time I see images of the city, I remember the rush of being on the edge of anarchy. And I like it, at least in short doses.
And here’s an excellent, admittedly anti-Chavez blog about the goings-on in Caracas.
Recently screened at the Havana Film Festival New York, the 12-minute short film, Hispaniola, tackles Haitian-Dominican relations on the Caribbean’s second-largest island.
Director Freddy Vargas shows us how childhood friendships can be marred by issues of race, class, and nationality as we watch a rich, light-skinned Dominican kid befriend the son of Haitian migrant workers living illegally across the street. The opening sequence underscores the misinformation taught to Dominicans about their historical ties with Haiti (the Haitians freed the entire island from European colonial rule and liberated the slaves on both the French and Spanish sides), and alludes to the legacy of former U.S.-backed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ensured that education in the country minimized any references to African heritage.
My only criticism of the film would be that the obvious phenotypic differences between the characters in the movie don’t speak to the complexities that arise when Dominicans of my own skin color (or darker) behave with the same rancor and hatred toward Haitians (or even very dark-skinned Dominicans). And believe me, I love my Dominicanos, but when it comes to the race issue, sometimes I be havin to let ’em know.
Best line comes from the little rich kid when he goes over to see his friend in spite of his jackass dad and tells him, “We’re still friends and we’re going to play baseball, okay?” with all the verve of a knowing Caribbean uncle. A mi mencant’el acento’minicano, sabeh?
The video was taken down, but you can see a short clip here.
This month, the brief but insightful CNN program “My City My Life” follows brotherman and ballet phenom, Carlos Acosta, around his beloved Havana. Having been forced into ballet by his father as a way to keep him out of trouble, Acosta wound up being the first black principal dancer in the London Royal Ballet, followed by a starring role at the Bolshoi. In this short clip from the special, he intones the musicality and flow of the everyday Cuban’s walk, labeled esoterically by Cuban novelist Antonio Benítez-Rojo as “a certain kind of way.”
See full video here. (I love the group of men arguing about sports and politics in the park around 3:00; from the barbershop to the park to the church picnic…there we are.)
So you want to get in on the Carnival action but don’t know where to start?
Find out when.
First, you need to get the dates cornered before embarking on any pre-Lenten debauchery. True Carnivals – be they in Brazil, Italy, Spain, the Caribbean, or any other Catholic-leaning society – occur simultaneously, which means ix-nay on a year-round party binge (unless, of course, you count New York’s West Indian Day parade, Calle Ocho in Miami, the Notting Hill joint, or innumerable other Carnival-esque activities that are not True Carnivals and can happen on any random date); you can only choose one event per year. Also, just like Easter, which is always forty days after Fat Tuesday, Carnival jumps around the calender every year: for 2010, the main events run from February 13th through the 16th, with celebrations kicking off a few days beforehand in spots like Salvador.
Find out where.
Besides the biggies (Rio, New Orleans, Venice), you’ve got the Carnivals featured here on Fly Brother (Salvador, Barranquilla, Trinidad), plus parties in Panama, Santo Domingo, the Canary Islands, Florence, Cologne, Sydney, Port-au-Prince, Goa, Buenos Aires, and Mobile, so language-barriers and dislike of long flights serve as week excuses for not going buck-wild at somebody’s fête-a-tête-tête.
Find out who.
You could choose to hit Carnival solo, which is always a good way to meet new people on the road. Still, heading down with an established group is the best way to maximize your enjoyment and minimize hassles. You may think of yourself as an independent person, but you can always break away from the group for some alone time while still taking advantage of discounted airfares and accommodations, and the knowledge of local tour guides or experienced travelers. Each year, in addition to traditional travel agencies, educational institutions and individuals arrange group packages with which anyone can become affiliated: Dr. Jan DeCosmo of Florida A&M University organizes inexpensive packages to Trinidad and Salvador under the banner of “Friends of the Caribbean” (email her at k d e c o s m o [a t] h o t m a i l [d o t] c o m for more information) while Atlanta-based dancer Jazz Baptiste has established a Meetup group for next year’s do in Rio at only $5 a day. And the closer it gets to the blessed event, impromptu travel groups spring up on websites like Virtual Tourist, BootsnAll, and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum.
Part 3 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.
On the tiny Caribbean island of Trinidad, four-hundred years of recorded history under various European flags and immigration from the four corners of the globe have shaped and molded the look and feel of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival into one of the most distinctive and flavorful events in the English-speaking world. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, TnT Carnival stems from French colonization (though Spain held title over the place back then) and has incorporated elements from Africa, Europe, Venezuela, India, and North America; these elements, in turn, were exported throughout the West Indies and overseas, including London’s famous Notting Hill Carnival.
Besides the obvious visual stimulation of a scrumdiddlyumptious backside winin’ to some soca, TnT Carnival is an ocular feast of traditional costumed characters that make the Disney Main Street Parade look like an elementary school Christmas pageant. Observe:
The Fancy Indian (based on traditional Plains Indian dress from the modern-day US and Canada):
Photo by caribbeanfreephoto
The Moko Jumbie (derived from the Congolese tradition of village protectors who could see trouble before it arrived…basically, security guards):
Photo by Withthejameses
The Midnight Robber (inspired by the traditional African storyteller, the griot, who tells tall tales about his exploits, adventures, and prowess…lookin like a piyimp):
Photo by izatrini_com
Dame Lorraine (a playful version of a typical French aristocratic lady, with her big-booty self):
Photo by longdistancelady
Jabs (French patois for “diable” – devil – these firestarters come in various shades and manifestations – wings and sharp teeth and such; as you can see, they start young, the little hellions):
Photo by dexout
Cow Folk (based on, well, cows):
Photo by shawnking99
*The word “mas” is short for “masquerade” and is used to denote the various costumed bands of revelers during TnT Carnival.
In the face of life’s always unexpected challenges, I’ve been needing a little inspiration to stay motivated on many fronts. After searching through some old travel notes, I found a great quote by a great man about a great feat of human ingenuity:
It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt, from a plaque in the rotunda of the Panama Canal Administration Building.
Three times, legally, I’ve crossed the Straits of Florida to that elegant, aging lady lounging ninety miles to the south, Havana. Once the crown jewel of Spanish America, Havana was the primary point of entry for settlers and slaves and the last point of departure for the gold and sugar reaped from the depths of Spain’s colonial empire. Now, the weathered dowager is home to around three million restless, educated, cultured, industrious souls who barely have five cents to make a dollar of, let alone fifteen. Cubans (on the island, not the exiles) are the physical embodiment of what’s good and bad with the 49-year-old Castro regime: a well-educated, physically-fit, intellectually-sophisticated population with every basic human need provided for and absolutely none of the wants. Cubans keep their one good guayabera or Sunday dress sparkling clean and pressed, their one pair of patent leather pumps or loafers gleaming despite the torn insole or the worn-down heel. They stay clean and fragrant when there’s barely any soap and sometimes share clothes with friends so as not to always be seen in the same outfit. They remain keenly aware of world events, despite hardly ever being allowed to leave their own island. They could be a street sweeper with a masters in engineering or an ecology-degree-holding fisherman. They could be a prostitute with a law degree who speaks five languages and the hope of one day using one of those languages when some European decides to take her away. They know all about Li’l Kim and Li’l Wayne, and they can identify a black American male by the li’l hop or pimp that we do when we’re walking in “don’t fuck with me” mode. They are easy to become friends with and will take you to their homes to meet their families and share with you the lil-bit-a-nuthin they have for dinner. They’ll order food for you on the street to keep you from paying foreign prices. They’ll take you to the beach and to the best ice cream place in town, Coppelia. No matter what age, they’ll dance to 90s hip-hop and 40s mambo, and again, no matter the age, they celebrate everything with a rumba. They’ll pick you up on the side of the road in their 1958 Studebaker and take you to the other side of the island, if that’s where they’re headed. They’ll make you want to leave your suitcase of clothes for them when you leave, knowing you can replace everything on the outside. I did that once. And I also left my half-read copy of The Souls of Black Folk with an English teacher who worked at my hotel.
See, Cuba, in its virtual isolation from modern Western consumerism, has retained its blackness, more than any other place in the hemisphere except Haiti. You see Santería practiced openly. You see the swaying hips of Africa in every dance, salsa included. It’s in their faces, their attitude, their friendliness, their loudness, their sense of humor. You see Tío Juancho and Pepe arguing just as fervently about politics/sports/women in the barbershop as Uncle Junebug and Pookie-nem, only in Spanish. And while you see lots of kids running around trying to be grown (the children are referred to as “futuro” – the future), you also see lots and lots of elders; they aren’t locked away and kept from sight…they’re out and about, dancing, flirting, remembering the past and participating in the present (I remember how one of my friends’ elderly father thought I was an American spy…how fuckin cool is that?!).
I can’t give you a post full of links to night spots and restaurants in Havana. All I can do is show you the paltry 20-some-odd photos to which I have digital access and hope that you’re inspired enough to find a way to the island before it is opened completely to the utterly destructive power of mass tourism. While I wish for my brothers and sisters there to have the same rights and freedoms I do, I secretly rue the day when the dollar casts a death blow to the already waning innocence of these amazing people.