Friday, January 12, 2018

Why Traveling To Haiti was One of the Highlights of My Life

This was supposed to be a post that examined my year in travel. But in light of the nonsense that has been recently stirred up about Haiti, El Salvador and the 54 countries that make up the African continent, I felt compelled to shine the spotlight on Haiti. I have long been weary of the constant dragging that the "Pearl of the Caribbean" endures. I have yet to see a mention of the island that doesn't describe it as "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" or reference the many natural disasters that have challenged this small country. You would think that it was some ravaged hole on the other side of the Dominican Republic, the way the stereotypes portray it. I assure you, it is not. Poverty and earthquakes have not stopped Haiti from being a vibrant country with a rich culture and stunning landscape. The elegant ruins of the Sans Souci palace, shown above, is  just one example. The grand palace was constructed in 1813 for Haiti's King Henri Christophe and included an amphitheater, a hospital, stables, gardens and pools.

And here we get to the real issue. Yes, Haiti had a king, a palace and an iconic mountain top fortress, La Citadelle,constructed to preserve Haiti's status as the world's first Black Republic. The audacity of  an enslaved people to snatch their freedom from France is something that the former colonial power never got over and Haiti has been paying for it ever since. But despite all the stereotypes and struggles thrown at Haiti, the pride and spirit of the Haitian people remain formidable. Stepping into the green hills and art strewn sidewalks of the island is something that I will never forget.

Color and art fill every surface of Port Au Prince, from shops, to tap tap buses, to  artfully painted houses.

The National Museum of Haiti boasts a sculpture garden as well as the tombs of Haiti's freedom fighters, Pre-Colombian artifacts, fine art and even the anchor from Christopher Columbus' Santa
Maria ship.

At the St. Trinity School of Music, over 1,000 students learn classical and Haitian folk music in a rigorous program that allows them to perform all over the world and record CDs. Many of the children are supplied with free music lessons and the melodies from their instruments can be heard through the streets of the trendy Petionville suburb of Port Au Prince. This is just a portion of the Haiti that I experienced. To witness the beauty, the resilience and the grace of the Haitian people and to know their courageous history fills me with pride. Ignorant remarks from a fast-food loving, half wit will never change that. Haiti is magnificent and I am forever changed because I had the opportunity to glimpse it personally.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Wonders of Willie Mae's in NOLA

Many visitors head to the French Quarter when they want to sample the famously flavorful New Orleans cuisine but I prefer to eat where the locals go. So I asked Zydeco star and foodie Sean Ardoin
for his recommendations and he insisted that Willie Mae's is the ultimate NOLA restaurant.

We rolled up to Willie Mae's restaurant in Treme and the long line of patient customers outside the spot demonstrated that Sean told no lies. We waited for about 35 minutes as a waitress came out to estimate how many tables could be filled every 20 minutes.

But once we were inside the historic restaurant that opened in 1957, we could see that the wait was worth it. There's a homey feel to Willie Mae's, like you're eating at your grandma's house. The food arrived quickly and the crunch and flavor of the fried chicken helped me understand why Sean called it the best in New Orleans. We shoveled in green beans, beans and rice and biscuits and my family, all of whom are rarely quiet, was really quiet as we concentrated on the feast.

Willie Mae's owner even won a prestigious James Beard Award for "America's Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region"  and the Travel Channel has declared the chicken as 'America's Best Fried Chicken." I didn't know all this before I visited  but it just goes to show you that it pays to go beyond the glitzy tourist hangouts to discover the real heart of a culture.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Soul of NOLA

For people unfamiliar with New Orleans history, the French Quarter and its myriad of bars and tourist traps is the focal point for their experiences in the city. But if you know a little history or like me, have roots in the city, you know that the heart of NOLA is in the historic Treme' neighborhood and the iconic Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park.

Treme' is the oldest African American neighborhood in the country, as well as the birthplace of jazz. It's where African American musicians developed the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of drumming, call and response mingled with brass bands. Of course, the essence of all these traditions started in Congo Square, the spot where enslaved Africans gathered on Sundays to drum, dance and celebrate their cultural traditions, which still informs every aspect of New Orleans culture. As soon as we landed, my family and I headed to Congo Square to go to the Treme' Gumbo Fest and hear the legendary Rebirth Brass Band. Standing on the spot where my ancestors connected with their spiritual heritage, I felt a surge of joy and pride. I felt like the soul of New Orleans was waving and singing right before my eyes.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Next Stop: New Orleans

This week, I'm going on a special trip. I'm headed to New Orleans with my mother, aunt and uncle to research our family history in the Crescent City.  I've been digging through centuries of records and history to discover the lives of my ancestors and in New Orleans we will try to trace their steps. We'll be visiting neighborhoods, cemeteries and historical societies for my research. We'll also be attending the Gumbo Festival in Treme and soaking up required music on French Street and all the  necessary restaurants.  This is a guaranteed adventure into my family's history so please stay tuned!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Child Acrobat Performing On An Ahmedabad Street

This is Buchi, she's eight-years-old.  Walking around the mid-sized city of Ahmedabad, I never saw child beggars or street children like the media portrays in cities like Mumbai or Delhi. So I was a little taken aback when I spotted her tiny body gliding over a tightrope on the side of a busy street.

She moved with focused grace and didn't seem disturbed by the cars, buses and bikes whizzing by but I was still relieved to see her brother hovering nearby.

My fellow travel writers and I made sure to give her money directly for her talents and she looked happy for the acknowledgement. She never spoke a word over the blaring Bollywood music but I could see that she was alert and quick-witted. We learned that families of acrobats used to roam Ahmedabad streets regularly but the practice has lost favor, which I was glad to hear. Hopefully, Buchi only performs part time, when she's not in school.

Monday, October 30, 2017

India's Spectacular Navratri Dance Festival

Billed as the longest dance festival in the world, India's Navratri Festival is filled with color, music and dance. Running nine consecutive nights to honor the goddess Shakti, I was excited to witness this joyful celebration in person. From the minute that I landed in Ahmedabad, which is noted for extensive and particularly dramatic Navratri festivities, I could feel the high energy.

The opening ceremony exploded with a red carpet, spotlights, processions, video projections and a dizzying array of dancers and music. It was truly overwhelming just to keep up with the spectacles because dancers were on the stage, twirling through aisles and prancing on the side of the stage.

I'm glad I had the chance to watch subsequent days of the festival because they were different from the opening night. The first night featured a swirl of professional dancers and singers but other nights displayed dance students and judges rating their performances.

I got to congratulate these girls after their lovely show and I had fun watching the different interpretation of the Gujarati  raas-garba dance from small villages.

The girls in this video are performing with traditional sticks called dandiya. 

In this video, these village dance students performed for judges.

I shopped for a traditional Navratri sari at the market and wore it to the opening ceremony. My outfit attracted a lot of photo requests that I wasn't expecting but it certainly made the experience even more memorable!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Faces of Gujarat, India

I discovered that everything I'd heard about India is true. It is colorful. It is chaotic. It attacks all of your senses. Landing in Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat, India's westernmost state, I was swept up by the street scenes, the temples and the constant motion of tuk tuks, bikes and people. But as I explored more of the surrounding villages, I realized that the essence of everything is the Indian people. They always welcomed me with ready smiles and warm greetings.

These women were preparing chapatis, an unleavened flatbread, to offer us as we visited an ironworker's shop who handmakes all kinds of  bells.

These men live in a small village and asked that their photo be taken. They gave us a tour of their homes and offered us chai.

This woman demonstrated how to make cotton thread at the Gandhi ashram.  She guided us through the rooms and complimented me on my dress, which she mistook to be Indian (it was an African design).

These school children greeted us when we arrived in their Bhuj village. They sang for us and asked for pens, which I had plenty of to pass out. The knowing smile of the teenage girl really captured me. She watched quietly as the children scrambled around but her personality stood out clearly, just as the spirit of India stood out in all of the faces we met.