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Watch Day in Jacmel Historic District, Haiti

As I flew over Port au Prince last September, almost three years after the devastating earthquake that killed a quarter of a million people in 2010, I tried to find the blue tents that used to be everywhere in and around the city signaling the location of the homeless camps, and I saw with relief that they were mostly gone, although empty patches of recently cleared rubble filled the landscape instead. The airport was full of activity and the traffic along the HT-2 road to the port-town of Jacmel was just as chaotic, hopefully signifying a certain return to normalcy. However, upon arriving to the outskirts of Jacmel, I was shocked to see the damage caused a few weeks before by tropical storm Isaac, the most recent natural disaster to hit the country, which caused the “Rivière de la Cosse” to overflow and wash away the settlements along its banks, and threatened to destroy Jacmel’s only access road.

The town itself seemed unaffected by this new catastrophe, and the Rue du Commerce, the main commercial street near the dock was busy getting ready for “Watch Day-Jacmel,” a celebration sponsored by World Monuments Fund and several government and private institutions, to raise awareness of the importance of Jacmel’s built heritage. Watch Day activities started with an exhibition of photographs taken by 10 and 12 year olds as part of a youth workshop organized by FOTOKONBIT (“konbit” is a Taino word meaning “coming together towards a common goal”), a not-for-profit group that teaches photography to Haitians. The children chose buildings, architectural details, and each other as their subjects, and produced a beautiful and compelling collection that was admired by a wide range of Jacmelians. After the exhibit, a music, dance, and light performance took place within a restored warehouse, one of the many such structures that line Rue du Commerce and Rue Saint Anne, built in the nineteenth century during the coffee boom that made Jacmel the richest town in Haiti.

The next day, the activities continued with “Rara” dances along Rue du Commerce, which are a combination religious ritual and carnival dance, typically performed during Easter, which constitute a perfect example of the organized chaos that seems to be the modus operandi in Haiti. The dancers were followed by a display of paper mâché crafts, including huge carnival masks made of recycled cement bags, which are a trademark of Jacmel. The festivities closed with speeches from local and national authorities who had gathered in Jacmel to launch a week-long program of activities all over the country, intended to promote cultural tourism, which seems to be the current great hope towards raising the nation out of the paralyzing poverty that has plagued Haiti for the past few decades.

After two-days in the relatively calm Jacmel (by Haitian standards), I returned to the chaos, noise, and overpopulation of Port au Prince, to prepare for the next round of Watch Day activities—this time dedicated to the Gingerbread Houses—before returning to New York, where a more familiar version of organized chaos rules.