One of the many benefits and pleasures of travel is being able to maintain ideal images and to ignore what might be behind them. I was able to cruise through Papa and Baby Doc’s Haiti, dance all night in Carrefour, eat elegant French meals in Petionville, walk through the markets, down by the port, and drive out to the beaches of Jacmel with nary a thought to the Duvalier’s reign of terror and the murderous Tonton Macoutes. Port-au-Prince was all romance, color, and meringue. There are only a few countries out of the many that I have visited where not only did nothing go wrong, but everything went right. I was so happy that I spent many mid-night hours on the balcony of the Victorian Hotel Splendide smiling and unbelieving of my good luck as I overlooked the city, listened to the drums of voodoo ceremonies in the hills beyond, and smelled flowers, rain, and wood fires. Until the Baby Doc was overthrown and exiled.
Port-au-Prince when I returned for the first time since Duvalier’s departure was a different place, more suspicious and dangerous. The smell of burning tires filled the city. Many were burning in protest against the regime, the wealthy, or just in frustrated anger and the lawless, dysfunctional place the city had become. Many more tires were burning because of ‘necklacing’, a particularly brutal form of lynching where a tire is placed around the neck, set alight, and allowed to burn until the victim catches fire and is roasted to death.
I insisted on staying at the Splendide and found it open but empty. I was the only guest and a day or two after I arrived, the tanks of another coup rumbled out of their barracks and up to the Presidential palace where firing broke out. I hunkered down in my room, listening to the BBC. I was sure that angry mobs would break into the Splendide, ransack and pillage it since the police had gone in hiding, the military was fighting the rebels, and there was no national or local government.
This anarchy, of course, had always been festering, kept down by the repressive forces of the Duvaliers; so the explosive expression of violence and undirected aggression was not surprising. I never returned to Haiti, and try as I might to remember only the romance, the music, and the languid days on the beaches of Macaya, I could only recall the acrid smell from the burning tires, the mobs storming the palace, and the frantic ride to the airport before it closed.
I have always succeeded in ignoring the bad and seeing only the good. I think I am lucky in that regard, because most of my memories are good ones. When friends asked me about the dark side, the dangers, the upheavals, dirt and disease of the places I visited, I always dismissed their questions, preferring to tell them about my civilized lunches on Lake Tanganyika, by the pool at the Teranga in Dakar, on the beach at Copacabana.
I had once stayed in a grand old hotel in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. It was run by Italians and had a lively, European atmosphere. It was always filled with visitors, both tourists who had come for the wildlife (you could hear the hippos roar from the verandah) or for work. The food was excellent, and the city was calm, clean, and cool.
When I returned to Burundi a few years after the first and most devastating clashes between Hutus and Tutsis (never as horrific as the Rwandan genocide but frighteningly savage nonetheless) I insisted on staying at the same hotel. Once again, I was the only guest. The pool was half-filled with stagnant, scummy rainwater. There were mosquitos in the dingy rooms. The European food had been replaced by gritty local fare, and there were only two or three staff.
Paul Theroux’s latest book, The Lower River, is about a former Peace Corps volunteer who returns to his village in Africa, a place where he had spent some of the happiest years of his life, then finds that both he and the village have changed. It has become poorer and more desperate, many years removed from the heady and optimistic times after independence, and he had grown older, less resilient, and less hopeful about his own life. He was returning to Africa not because of Africa but because it might offer him solace and renewed meaning. He barely escaped from his life. Formerly trustworthy, caring, and social natives robbed, exploited, and manipulated him; took advantage of his good will; and cast him aside unceremoniously. The story is reminiscent of the true tales of the 18th century British traveller Mungo Park who, at first seeing only the innocence of the primitive, was bought and sold, tied and tethered, robbed and left in the jungle time and time again.
I have always tried to keep this malignant side of culture out of sight. I ignored the fact that I was played, cadged, and taken by friend and foe alike in poor countries who cared less about the ‘development’ I was peddling and more about the money they could make off its loosely-monitored projects. I saw this crafty manipulation as part of the Third World, a story to be told to colleagues at the hotel bar, an inconvenience, and only a minor irritation.
I had finally reached the limits of frustration on one trip to Pakistan when I saw my own staff pilfering money, supplies, and equipment in an arrogant, dismissive, and carefree way. I complained to the Secretary of Health who was my official counterpart in the country. I explained how the money from an American benefactor was being diverted from its original use – to save Pakistani lives (it in fact was blood money paid to the government by a pharmaceutical company whose product had indirectly contributed to deaths in a village because of overdose) – and how he should intervene.
Politely but firmly he told me that I didn’t get it. It was indeed blood money and neither the pharma company nor the US government cared what happened to it. Of course the money disappeared. Why wouldn’t it? No one wanted the project, were insulted by the stipulations imposed, and rejected American paternalism, and everyone was poor.
Whatever romantic notions I had about that corner of the Subcontinent disappeared like vapor when I heard these dismissive, sarcastic words.
“You can’t go back any more” has become a cliché; but it is nevertheless true. Time erodes even the fondest memories, especially if they have been built on illusion. Both Theroux’s character and I suffered from that particular travellers’ disease – fantasy; and while his alter ego barely escaped a savage death, the rest of us have learned that it is better to retain, nurture, and water our illusions rather than see if they are real.