We arrived near the Champs de Mars in central Port-au-Prince a little after six for our night of music and light-soaked adventure at Carnival. Given the fact that there are very few tourists in Haiti, we had hired an additional security person for the night to help us arrive safely at our stand where we would watch the festivities from above. I admit that I was a little nervous about getting to the stand safely as the streets were already packed with people and getting across the street proved daunting.
We lined up in single file, placing our cameras and anything of value inside our shirts and wormed our way into the mayhem of a crowd-filled street. It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated but knew as time went by, the streets would only get more crowded and getting out of Carnival would be a challenge. But I decided to not think of it at the time and simply embrace the experience.
We made it across the street to the entrance of the Minister of Tourism stand, where we passed through a group of armed guards who insured we had our Minister of Tourism Carnival t-shirts on and a wristband. If you didn’t have one on, you were not let in.
The stand was already crowded with people and we found a crammed spot in the front overlooking the street below. By standing on a chair, I got a bird’s-eye view of the festivities and realized that it would never have been possible to attend Carnival if we weren’t in a stand. The streets were so crowded that it resulted in a lot of pushing and shoving and I’m shocked that more fights didn’t break out. The atmosphere was festive but intense. There were smiles across the faces but unfortunately my amateur photographic skills especially capturing movement and night scenes do not depict it.
The Carnival began with bands, dancing and performers who miraculously got through the crowds and moved down the overflowed streets. I tried my best to capture them on film but even that was difficult given the crowds, the lighting and the lack of a good telephoto lens. I also confess to be horrible at night photography. I’ve learned it is a special talent.
It was a hot and steamy night in Haiti. I had decided to wear pants for protection against mosquitos and was already regretting it. It would take a few icy, cold Prestiges (the national beer) and lots of water to keep me from overheating.
As time went by, the streets got even more crowded and the atmosphere turned into a giant street party. The music was roaring and it was impossible not to be completely taken away into the energy and excitement of the night.
After hours, the big floats finally appeared and some of them were massive being pulled by a semi-truck. I was amazed that the floats could even get by given the wall of people in the streets but somehow they inched forward. The music was blaring, the crowd was dancing and the party had finally truly began. It was a sight to see!
By ten o’clock Carnival was in full swing and there was no sign of it calming down so we could safely cross the street. We were all scheduled to fly out the next morning to go home so staying until the early dawn to see the entire thing was out of the question.
The only problem was how on earth would we get out of our stand and cross the street in this chaos without being squashed or lost? I was beginning to get a tad bit worried but knew that somehow we’d find a way. Earlier in the evening, we met Haiti’s Minister of Tourism who is a woman and was thrilled to have us in Haiti blogging about our experience.
When the time neared for us to leave, we were able to get her to organize an armed escort of eight gun-carrying guards. I admit I was nervous. I had no idea even with the guards how we would get across the street in one piece. We were told to once again line up in a single file line, without leaving any space between our bodies and then the door opened and we were in the crowds.
It felt like one of those surreal experiences. There we were a group of foreigners being escorted out by armed guards who basically pushed and shoved their way to make a path for us through the crowd. We got several angry stares but no touching, feeling or slapping of private parts which I had been forewarned about. As we crossed the street, I felt my heart beating like a drum and was completely drenched in sweat by the time we got across.
We made it.
The next day when I landed home safe and sound in Minneapolis my mom called to tell me that 16 people had been trampled to death in Haiti at Carnaval the night before. It happened right outside the stand I was in. I can only imagine the terror.
Author’s note: I have had many comments stating surprise that the photos don’t look necessarily happy. Perhaps I did not do the best job representing the event but I tried my best as an amateur photographer who is not good at motion shots or night photos. It was festive and there were smiles despite some of the up close shots I have of unsmiling faces. If I misrepresented the night, it was done unintentionally. However, it is important to note that Carnival in Haiti is much different than the world-famous Carnival in Rio or even New Orleans.