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Miami's Little Haiti offers a taste of the Caribbean

From his corner convenience store in Little Haiti, Ashraf Mashni sees a thriving Caribbean village.

It's a short drive inland from Miami's trendy South Beach, and it lacks the glassy newness of the city's condo canyons downtown.

The shabby neighborhood can be tough, populated by "your good, your bad and your don't-know-no-better," he says. But Little Haiti has something the rest of Miami is often accused of lacking: authenticity.

"Come here and visit and you'll feel like you've got two vacations in one," Mashni says as a steady stream of Haitian Creole-speaking customers stroll past the red and blue Haitian flag painted on the outside of his store, Jenin's.

"You've got South Beach, and you've got a Caribbean island - the neighborhood in the Caribbean island, not the tourist area in the Caribbean island," Mashni says.

There's no passport required to find Haitian culture in Miami - just the desire to forgo the tourist carnival on the beach and try out the locals' everyday rhythms.

Little Haiti

While many Haitian- Americans have moved their homes and businesses north of the city, Little Haiti remains the community's cultural heart.

Red flags proclaim "Welcome to Little Haiti" in both English and Haitian Creole. But those aren't the only signs to look for.

If South Beach is known for its neon, Little Haiti is known for the colorful storefront murals painted by Serge Toussaint. Look for his signature flourish - "$erge" - in the soda cans he paints into murals outside small grocery stores, and in the portraits he does of saints watching over botanicas, Haitian music stars outside clubs and well-coiffed ladies smiling above beauty supply shops.

Many of the buildings along Little Haiti's main crossroads recently got fresh coats of pastel-colored paint. So has the shuttered Caribbean Marketplace, a re-creation of the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince.

Behind it gleams the newly opened Little Haiti Cultural Center, which linked an exhibit of contemporary art by Caribbean artists to the annual Art Basel Miami Beach art fair.

The experimental Dance Now! Ensemble calls the center home, and weekend showings of Haitian movies are scheduled to begin in January.

Art and culture

Haitian botanicas lure customers with fresh herbs by the door. Inside, rows of colored candles and matching scarves, vaguely labeled bottles of perfumes and oils, and small saintly figurines are ready for Christian and Haitian voodoo practices.

To take home a sample of Haiti, though, it's better to stop at an art gallery specializing in Haitian art, such as the Jakmel Gallery (jakmelartgallery.com) or the Haitian Art Factory (haitianartfactory.com); both are a little north of Little Haiti.

The newest "it" bag in Miami is a VeVe, from a

voodoo-inspired collection

of handmade handbags found at a new Little Haiti

boutique, Made in Haiti

(madeinhaiti.net).

The Haitian Heritage Museum, in the Design District, attempts to put Haiti's mix of cultures and beliefs in historical context (haitianheritage

museum.org). Haitian news, histories and folk tales - and dictionaries to help decipher them - all can be found at the bookstore Libreri Mapou (librerimapou.com).

Compas - popular, jazzy Haitian dance music - blares through the doors of shops selling Haitian, Caribbean and African music and movies.

Caribbean flavor

Maybe the best way to experience Haiti in Miami is to taste it in dishes like savory "griot," or fried pork. In Haitian cuisine, beef, chicken and fish come fried, grilled or broiled in light sauces and spices, with slices of lime and helpings of rice and beans or plantains.

In Little Haiti, join the locals meeting up for conch, shrimp, crab and oxtail at Chef Creole's outdoor counter (chefcreole.com). At Lakay Tropical Ice Cream, sample flavors such as passion fruit, coconut and sour sap, along with breads and milkshakes - most for less than $3.

AP reporter Suzette Laboy contributed to this report.

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