Sherry Bluestein normally haunts the shops and bakeries in Aventura.
But Saturday morning she found herself in Little Haiti, a place that seemed exotic to her — and fascinating. She tasted Haitian-style codfish pastries and coconut ice cream and washed it down with Couronne Fruit Champagne, a tropical flavored soft drink.
The 80-year-old travel agent was among about 20 people who took the first of a series of free tours presented by a city of Miami group overseeing the commemoration of Haiti’s bicentennial. The aim is to turn the neighborhood into a tourist destination — much like Little Havana has become.
”Little Haiti is one of the cultural gems in our area,” said David Brown, whose Urban Tour Host company last year launched Miami’s Cultural Community Tours. He takes people deep into some of South Florida’s culturally vibrant neighborhoods.
Saturday’s bus and walking tour began at Libreri Mapou, the first U.S. bookstore to specialize in Haitian Creole publications. Owner Jan Mapou gave everyone samples of his Kremas Mapou, the store’s signature sweet, milky drink made from coconut, caramel, some other secret ingredients and a touch of rum ”to make you warm up,” Mapou says.
”It’s good, but it’s rich,” said Carlene Jacobson, of Brickell Key. “I taste some vanilla and some banana.”
Mapou — who fled Haiti after he was jailed for promoting and encouraging education among the country’s poor masses — also offered a quick lesson on Haitian history.
”We have been through a lot,” he said after he led the group to an upstairs gallery where different Haitian artists are showcased. “Our paintings, our culture, express our problems, our misery and our day to day activities.”
Other stops included the Halouba Botanica on Northwest 54th Street, where the owner’s niece led visitors through two hallways to the back room that serves as a Vodou temple — the only one of its kind in Florida, Brown said. They asked Gina Bazile about the drawings on the walls that represented different saints or Vodou gods and the altars. They bought Soussi and basil plants to wash themselves with at home — for good luck.
The group then crossed the street to the LeKay Tropical Ice Cream and Bakery and the adjacent Classic Sound Record shop where they heard four types of Haitian music: Compas, Zouk, Toubadou and Racine.
In between stops, Brown pointed out notable sites: Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church — which draws Haitian worshipers from as far away as Palm Beach; and Place Kamoken, a corner lot where new arrivals from Haiti were traditionally taken to meet with friends and relatives that is now being turned into a city park.
As the bus turned off 54th Street, he reminded visitors that it was there where protesters staged major demonstrations against U.S. immigration policy in the 1980s.
A TASTY INTERLUDE
The tour ended with lunch at La Vraie Difference Restaurant across from the bookstore.
”Delicious! I love this,” said Olga Hutchingson of Kendall as she bit into another piece of acra, a kind of malanga or potato indigenous to Haiti, mashed and mixed with flour and then deep-fried. Her husband James, a professor at Florida International University, warned her not to try the pickles spicy sauce.
The two-hour trek was much more than Olga Garcia, 50, expected.
”I am impressed. I thought we were going to just look around and have things pointed out to us,” said the Miami Beach resident. “I didn’t know it would be so deep.”
Pepper Prigal, a mortgage banker from Aventura agreed.
”More things like this are needed,” said Prigal. “I’m a traveler, but I think we have so much to learn about in our own backyard. We have so many different cultures and people right here. We don’t have to go to other countries.”