Thirdeyemom

A Night at Carnival in Port-au-Prince

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.

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Getting across the street in this crowd proved challenging.

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.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

View from inside the stand.

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.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

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.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

The President’s stand was directly across the street (where everyone is wearing yellow t-shirts).

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015As 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.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

I was thankful there were plenty of police around in case a riot broke out. But didn’t want to be there in case there was.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

I also knew the President was right across the street in this building on the third floor.

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!

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Finally the first float arrived. Let the party begin!

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

View from the stand

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

How a giant float on a semi-truck got through this intense crowd amazed me.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

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. 

27 comments

  1. The biggest thing that stands out for me in these photos is the lack of smiles. I’m sure in its presence it felt like a party atmosphere, but I can’t help detect some degree of unease or foreboding with the people in these. The scene doesn’t exude the happy, friendly aura that you see at other carnivals – instead it almost looks like a mass protest. I hope I’m wrong, but I think a smile (or lack thereof) can speak volumes. The Haitians just seem unhappy and wary to me.

    • You are the second person who mentioned that. The people in the stands with me we’re all having fun and the ones singing and dancing on the floats but a very interesting point indeed. I’m not sure if it was the pictures I got and represented here or if I was too busy taking them! But it was festive. Haiti has been through an awful lot and the life there is difficult. From my brief stay of five days and the people I interacted with I got the feeling that people are healing. Just days before we went there was a massive protest that made the busy streets a ghost town. But then it was life as usual the next day for Carnival. It is a very good perception of the photos in my post. I hope I didn’t misrepresent the night. I will be sure to write more stories about my experiences there and the people I met.

      • Actually, it’s a cultural thing. Haitians,in general, tend to have pretty stoic facial expressions unless they are with family or in comfortable social groups. You won’t find the big, grinning American smile there (or in a bunch of other places). It doesn’t mean they aren’t having fun or are unhappy! Carinval *is* very festive. Shame it ended with the accident. :/

      • thanks for the comment! I often wonder too about “smiling” and culture. There are many places I’ve been in the world where people don’t smile as much. It doesn’t mean they aren’t happy just that is there culture. Thanks for stopping by Megan!

  2. As I was reading your post, I was preparing a comment exactly like the first! No smiles. The atmosphere doesn’t seem happy, or light, or celebratory because of that. Faces and body language, downcast eyes, etc. The presence of armed guards? Protest in the air? Whatever the causes, it’s an interesting outcome: grim.

    • Thanks for the comment. I wrote a few responses about this and I wonder now that my photos don’t reflect the night too well. There was a lot of dancing and moving so the only ones that turned out of faces were these. There were smiles and laughter. I just didn’t get those on film. As for the guards, a lot of Haiti has a strong military presence of national police and UN Peacekeepers. There has been a lot of protesting and issues since the earthquake and even before and after given the tumultuous government. I did love Haiti but it isn’t a tourist place. I am lucky I got to go the way I did or I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the experience.

  3. Interestingly Nicole, I did not have the reaction that it was unhappy. Au contraire, I got a sense of excitement, color, intensity and overall craziness. I give you cudos for braving the crowds and the atmosphere – I’d have been frightened to death!! How very sad that people were trampled to death. You must have felt quite a shock when you heard. I think you did a great job covering the event under such difficult circumstances–especially without a good zoom which would be critical for that kind of shoot. You captured the emotion of the event and that’s what counts. You go girl!

    • I would say you definitely want to be with a “security person”. We had a tall man with us the entire time as our “bodyguard”. He didn’t carry a gun but was there just in case. Yes, sadly I think you do have to be very careful in Port-au_prince. There just aren’t many foreigners. I don’t think you’d at all get hurt but there has been kidnappings and mostly just pick-pocketing. In Jacmel, I felt very safe.

    • No, but you’d probably need a driver and a guide if you’re going to do touristy things. Unless you speak Creole, which Haitians would think hilarious and fabulous. The driving is just mayhem and streets aren’t marked at all, so you’d end up lost and confused.

  4. I think you did a great job of capturing the essence of the Carnival both in your photos and writing. Night photos of people moving has to be one of the ultimate photo challenges. The first photo of the young girl is exceptional!
    I did not get the impression of the people not being happy. I also think we have to be careful about putting our own expectations on other people’s events, as their celebrations (or whatever) are expressions and reflections of their lives’ experiences that we don’t really have a clue about. You and the other visitors have had a glimpse, and I’m sure you’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

    • Thanks Marilyn! Yes night photos are very hard and moving is even harder. I appreciate your comment! I really enjoyed being in Haiti. I think there are a lot of misperceptions about it. Stay tuned for more posts!

  5. My impression from your photos was that it was a precious miniscule time of celebration and relief for the Haitians. I didn’t get the impression that they were unhappy, instead they appeared to be relishing the moment through raucous celebration. Our perceptions are conceived through the information we have of the events of the world. It must be difficult to understand how the Haitians have the fortitude and strength to celebrate after everything that they have been through. But, it is evident from your photos that they are resilient people, much like the Nicaraguan people. I think you are a master at night photography and your photos are spectacular. You captured the essence of the people in a celebratory mood. But, I have crowd phobia. I don’t even like going to a mall and avoid malls at Christmas like the plague. Thank God there are no malls on Ometepe Island. I would have had to have an armed guard carry me across the street. What a nightmare!

    • This is a great comment Debbie! Yes even now when I talk about being in Haiti people give me the comment “I’d never go there”. There are so many misperceptions about the world, especially because of the media. I hope to shed some light on the beauty of the place and its people through my blog.

  6. So glad you got across that road safely with your armed escort. I think I would have also been very apprehensive. I agree with mistynites about the lack of smiles on those faces. Maybe they were feeling sad about the people who died there the night before. I do hate to be anywhere that there are big crowds of people.

    • I hate big crowds too Sylvia and have never been to the state fair. I decided to just go with the flow for this and I took little mini breaks away from the noise for awhile. I’m glad I went though. It was quite an experience.

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