The Ghetto Biennale online

Now online is PRI's Christmas day edition of "The World," which included my report on the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

If you are visiting from "The World" and want more, scroll down a couple of posts for additional images and commentary from Port-au-Prince's Grand Rue. I'll happily address any questions left in the comments.


Suicide Bloomers

The Nigerian would-be terrorist who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam apparently had high explosives sewn into his underwear.

The Daily News also reports that US lawmakers (from the minority party) are already clamoring for an investigation into how this millionaire son of a banker was ever allowed to board a plane in the first place. He has apparently been on the terrorist watch list for two years (along with 550,000 others), and his religious fanaticism so troubled his financier father that the latter stopped into the US embassy in Lagos to warn them about his own son.

To which the only appropriate response from the Obama administration should be "when is the last time you took a Nigerian banker's 'exciting offer of confidential information' seriously?"



The Ghetto Biennale on PRI's "The World"

I'm assured that tomorrow, on Christmas day, my report on Port-au-Prince's recent Ghetto Biennale will air on PRI's The World. If in the United States check your local NPR affiliate station for showtimes HERE. For all you international listeners, the story will post to the PRI website on Monday, the 28th. I'll put a link up then.


In the meanwhile, they've already posted a Flickr set of my photographs from the trip, along with the almost oppressive suggestion that you visit this very same blog to "see more about the Biennale." Why oppressive? In addition to working on the piece for The World, I spent much of the last ten days writing stories about the event for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, the Times of London, the Miami Herald and the BBC's From our own Correspondent. Keeping all of these stories fresh and different has been enough of a challenge without more blogging on top of it.

Nonetheless, for those of you visiting from The World's link, antarcticiana refuses to disappoint, so here are a few more images from my recent trip to Haiti, where I was hanging out on the Grand Rue with a group of sculptors who make amazing vodou-assemblage art out of the discarded refuse of western civilization.

A detail from an André Eugene sculpture of a "Gede," installed right on the curb of the Grand Rue, along the Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The entire figure is about seven feet tall, with a ribcage welded together out of rebar. As I understand it, Gedes are a tribe of spirits representing the ancestors. One of the foremost among them is Bawon Samedi, literally "Baron Saturday," who is feted at the beginning of November with a vodou ceremony clearly correspondent with the Christian All Saints Day. I've blogged about the annual Gede festivity at Tap-Tap in Miami, before. The Gedes manifest a beguiling combination of sexuality and death, which Eugene explained to me in terms of a yin-yang duality he says permeates vodou. The Baron's voracious sexual appetite, he said, represents life, through procreation; but wherever life is present, so too is its opposite, death. The head of this sculpture is an actual human skull. Eugene says these occasionally wash out of the cemetery up the hill, appearing in the streets during violent storms, but they are so prevalent in the work of the Grand Rue artists that something more than hurricanes must be at work. I suspect locals now collect them and pass them along for a finder's fee.

A "Tap-tap," or public bus, sporting a mural of "Sweet Mickey," a popular konpa band based out of Petionville, the rich suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Konpa (compas) is the dominant dance music of Haiti, a slow lilting groove something like a francophone version of salsa, danced "kole-kole," meaning "stuck together." Religious imagery is at least as popular a motif as pop-culture, with a special fondness for the "Jesus is my shepherd" theme as in this image on the back of the Tap-tap, below.


As part of a film crew I once made the long and kidney-churning drive to Canje, in Haiti's remote Central Plateau, to interview Paul Farmer, secular saint and subject of the Tracy Kidder biography Mountains Beyond Mountains. Farmer explained Haiti as "9,000,000 Africans kidnapped and dumped in the middle of the Caribbean with no way to get home." In the traditions of vodou and even in iconography such as that on this Tap-tap, which reads simply "Black Africa," that heritage is still very much alive, evident and celebrated. A visitor arriving to Haiti after being blindfolded and put on a plane could easily imagine that they had been transported to Senegal or Côte D'Ivoire, rather than to one of the Antilles.

But the old connections of the colonial Caribbean are equally strong. One evening, hearing a brass band playing, I wandered out of the gates of the famous and fabulous Oloffsson Hotel, which fifty years ago served as the setting for Graham Greene's The Comedians. I followed the sound to an outdoor basketball court down the road, where these musicians were practicing for carnival. The ensemble included only drums, an array of horns, and voices. Robert Peterson, the sound artist mentioned in the radio piece I did for PRI's "The World," joined me. Originally from Louisiana, he was bowled over by the similarity between this Haitian carnival music and the brass bands of New Orleans. Before the Haitian revolution and the Louisiana purchase, Port-au-Prince and New Orleans were of course sister cities in the French colonial enterprise.

On another occasion, sitting on the veranda, we heard more passing musicians. After just the very first few notes, Robert blurted out "that's funeral music." He told me that before coming to the Ghetto Biennale the farthest he had been from home was a trip to the Canadian side of the Niagara falls, but he took to Haiti immediately, wandering about with his digital recorder in a kind of exploratory ecstasy.

In the age of jet-travel and US hegemony the old trade routes that linked the great ports of the Caribbean basin have faded in our collective memory. Uncovering evidence of them is always exciting.

Much as this looks like another assemblage by the sculptors of the Grand Rue, this is a ritual space, the vodou equivalent of a shrine or altar, outside in the yard at the home of the local vodou priest. There are likely cauldrons, repositories of spirits called by the priest to do "work" on behalf of practitioners, buried in the ground beneath this installation. In Cuba I saw bundles almost identical to this thread-wrapped ball, in similar environments. The bundle most probably contains symbolic objects collected together by the client at the behest of the spirit, speaking through the priest. If the client wishes to ensure the faithfulness of his lover, for instance, the bundle might contain a lock of her hair, a photograph, or a stolen swatch of fabric from her clothing. The Hollywood stereotype of the "voodoo doll" probably originates from a mis-characterization of this sort of symbolic substitution of part for whole.

All kinds of cast-off material are incorporated into the work being made on the Grand Rue. These stick figures, with heads taken from the discarded dolls of North America, are wound around and around and around with lengths of cassette tape, mummified in music.

Another Grand Rue creation, a sort of Haitian Carmen Miranda, with a headdress made from 7up, Guiness and Prestige Beer bottle caps.


Sell your waterfront property dept. UPDATED

According to twitter stream #cop15, we've gone from Copenhagen to Hopenhagen to Nopenhagen...

Update: as the comments point out, there's also Floppenhagen. And I've reached a grumpy new stage, Mopenhagen.


Times of London

Knick-nack shelf of postmodern gargoyles on the Grand Rue, Port au Prince

My first story on the Ghetto Biennale ran in the Times of London over the weekend in the Saturday Review section. To date no trace of it online, as far as I can google. If you are in the UK, save me a copy.


Passing the buck...

I am occasionally asked if blogging isn't a distraction from more "worthy" writing projects, and I explain that the habit is a bit like the oil pump in a car. It keeps the writing muscles lubricated and active so that the engine is primed when it is time to produce some literary horsepower. I admit that it is sometimes a welcome distraction from other mundane tasks, doing the laundry, for instance. But rarely am I so busy with other writing that I had better not waste time blogging.

One of those times is now. I've just returned from an absurdly short trip to Haiti, organized at the last moment to cover the Ghetto Biennale, a unique cultural interchange between the sculptors of the Grand Rue, residents of a teeming Port au Prince slum, and an international coterie of visiting artists with a diverse array of site-specific projects. Almost all the visitors had their preconceptions immediately challenged, if not shattered, by their initial exposure to the difficult conditions and the level of poverty they encountered.

But because I will need to spend several days formulating my thoughts on the Biennale into numerous newspaper articles and at least one radio piece, I don't have time to tell you more about it here. Instead I would direct those of you frantic for your daily dose of travel musing to go and read my father's fascinating initial account of his recent trip to Israel.

To whet your appetite, here are a few of his delicious observations,

on Jewish celebration:

"...the ceremony of most Jewish festivities—(boils) down to three propositions:(1) They tried to kill us. 2) They failed. (3) So, let’s eat."

on food and its role in Jewish versus Christian community:

"An agnostic can have a fine time at a Shabbat meal; he is unlikely to go to High Mass for either the sociability or the gastronomy."

on the church at Bethlehem, in the West Bank:

"I didn’t have the sense of the money-changers actually having taken over the control of the temple as I did with some of the more familiar Christian sites in Jerusalem."



Live Blogging a Fabada Asturiana, by way of Gdansk

In Asturias, on the southern shores of the Bay of Biscay, grows a unique and enormous variety of bean. Known as Fabes de Granja, they are white, and plump, and curvaceous, rather like a cannellini bean in aspect, but not in scale. It takes four or five of your garden variety cannellini beans to match the volume and heft of a single one of its gigantesque Asturian cousins. I have never eaten Fabes de Granja, but I plan to.

A line traced along the famous camino, the ancient pilgrimage route leading from central France to Santiago de Compostela, maps also the world's greatest bean dishes. From this geoculinary perspective I have developed the tenuous hypothesis that a recipe involving the sublime combination of beans, slow stewed with smoky, fatty pork products, must have made its way through Europe, carried on the palates and the olfactory memories of the pilgrims. Midway between the cassoulet of Lyons and the white-bean feijoada of the Douro in northern Portugal sits the principality of Asturias, and its eponymous, princely, Fabada Asturiana.

A true Fabada cannot be made without Fabes, and they are not easy to obtain. Down van Brunt street at the Fairway I can buy salt from the Himalayas, onions from Vidalia County, Georgia, and tomatoes from San Marzano, outside Naples, but not Fabes de Granja. The sense of inner peace I get from cooking doesn't often involve the kind of planning ahead necessary to order beans online, so my first Fabada effort was to involve a series of compromises. And Fabes, when you can find them, go for ten to twenty dollars a pound. Dried. I wasn't sure I wanted to spend that kind of cake on some beans.

1200 hours
First a trip to Sahadi's for some classic made-in-the-USA Cannellini beans, and then on to Eagle Provisions, the Polish purveyors of all things porky. The critical non-bean ingredients in a Fabada are chorizo, morcilla, and bacon. I had some chorizo at home. The poles had a splendid slab of double-smoked bacon. "Any morcilla?" I asked. "Blood sausage?" The woman behind the counter pointed at a fat and rather scary tube of flesh in the bottom of the deli counter. It was a floppy pale gray, fully three inches in diameter, nothing like a dense, shiny eggplant-colored link of morcilla. "It's the polish one, kiszka. It's the same." Why not, I thought. It's made from blood, isn't it?

1400 hours
Poured boiling water over a pound of the dry beans to promote accelerated soaking. By 1600 they had tripled in size, which is to say the beans were almost as large as a dried Fabe de Granja. (I've never seen soaked Fabes, but they must be the size of small pillows.)

1700 hours
The kiszka, two chorizos and a nice fatty bit of bacon await the addition of the beans.

All that porcine yumminess is now temporarily buried. Cover with water. Light burner. Skim the surface scum after the first few minutes of boiling. Lower flame to barest minimum. Most recipes urge the interruption of the simmering process by the regular addition of a jolt of cold water, alleging that this help the beans remain tender. I was tempted to check Mcgee, to see if there is any scientific data to support this contention, but instead I just went ahead and did it anyway.

Soaked and ready

Almost immediately the cured meats began to render their fat, infusing the beans with smoky cholesterol goodness. The kiszka collapsed into a grainy crumble less than fifteen minutes into the long, slow simmer, leaving nothing but a shrunken and miserable scrap of sausage casing, which I removed. The rich odors of the disintegrated blood sausage were, however, pleasingly morcillaesque.

This is a staggeringly simple dish. After a couple of hours remove the chorizos and the bacon, chop them into bite sized bits, and stick them back in the pot. Aside from the pork, the only flavoring comes towards the end of the cooking with the addition of the world's easiest sofrito: three or four chopped cloves of garlic are sauteed golden in olive oil, then in goes a tablespoon full of one of my favorite of all ingredients, sweet pimenton, a couple more of flour, and a sachet of saffron. Mix this into your beans, give it another half an hour or so of melding and simmering, a bit of salt, and voilá! Insanely delicious, given that this is nothing but beans and a few inferior bits from a pig. How much better could it be with the authentic giant bean? I intend to find out.