Mardi Gras in the Caribbean is an excuse for colourful celebrations with music, dancing, and elaborate costumes on show.Haitiis no exception. Carnival weekend in Jacmel was crowded, busy and buzzing with excitement.
The small coastal town ofJacmel is a beautiful place to visit, usually calm and peaceful with idyllic beaches and boasting spectacular colonial architecture still intact after the earthquake. However, over the carnival weekend thousands crowd into the narrow streets, hotels are booked out for months in advance, and the entire main street is transformed as makeshift stands are constructed for the carnival parade.
Arriving early on the main street the stands were already filling up, painted in bright colours, with huge speakers blaring out carnival songs down the road. Some were already in costume and we passed a man draped in live snakes as we walked down. Some of the floats were still under construction in the morning and there were a handful of painters putting the finishing touches to the stands lining the street.
The parade started with local community groups waving flags aligned to community movements for children’s rights or chanting slogans opposing violence against women. They were soon joined by groups of dancers draped in silk flowers and brightly coloured skirts who carefully choreographed their way up the street. The crowds lining the streets got bigger and the music louder, and the costumes more and more elaborate.
Men on stilts and women dressed as peacocks passed by and creatures made out of papier-maché shuffled past. A huge dragon costume came up the street, breathing fire and provoking delighted screams and cheers from the crowd! There were also some more sinister troupes who came past, all in black revealing some darker undertones linked to voodoo gods and rituals. Suddenly the crowd parted and a large group of boys dashed up the street covered in black oil, darting close to the crowd and threatening to cover them with streaks of black grease. The stream of costumes and dancers was interrupted again later as President Martelly danced his way down the street, surrounded by his entourage with the crowd eagerly pressing in behind to catch a glimpse.
As the sun set the party continued, with Rara bands coming up the street, blowing their horns and banging their drums along to the carnival beats. The floats didn’t appear till late into the night and when we pushed our way through the crowd to head back home we got the impression the party was only really just beginning.
My experience of carnival in Haiti was a generally positive one. Large crowds in Haiti can have the potential to turn violent very suddenly, but the atmosphere in Jacmel was that of celebration, not threat. It was a fascinating insight into the lively Caribbean culture and it was amazing to see so many people turn out to be part of the festivities.