"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Duality–Enjoying Life And Avoiding The Nasty Bits

What’s your name, little man?”, Henrietta Albert asked.

“Aubelin Jolicoeur at your service, Madam”, the martinet with the foulard, tuxedo, and silver dogs-head cane replied.

Henrietta was the only guest at the Oloffson who didn’t know who Jolicoeur was, so immortalized was he in Graham Greene’s The Comedians. In fact Graham Greene and Jolicoeur were the principal reasons the hotel was always filled and the bar lively.  There were those guests who wanted to stay in the John Barrymore or Lillian Hellman Suites; but the real attraction was the hotel itself, in its heyday dubbed the Greenwich Village of Port-au-Prince, always the watering hole of New York’s intellectuals and literati, gorgeous mulatto women, and Tonton Macoutes who watched over everything and everybody for Papa Doc. 

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The Oloffson would have been a lesser place if it hadn’t been for the sinister Macoutes who were bored by the assignment.  How much sedition and insurrection after all could be planned in such a foreign place? No, Papa Doc wanted them visible whether by the potted palm on the verandah, at the end of the bar, or by the pool.  They were tourist fixtures at the Oloffson and not really a bad lot who earned their keep quietly – a few words to the Haitians from Kenscoff and Petionville who were suspicious of Papa Doc, wealthy enough to keep him and his henchmen from their doors, but potential trouble nonetheless.

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Henrietta Albert had not wanted to come to Haiti, for even setting foot on the benighted island would have been an act of complicity with the Duvalier regime. She reminded me of Mrs. Smith, the vegetarian in Greene’s novel who was principled, stubborn and courageous; who knew nothing of the sinister backdrop to the Oloffson; but who was never frightened no matter how much she learned about Papa Doc and the Macoutes.  The similarity with Mrs. Smith ended at her punctiliousness.  Mrs. Smith always had her Marmite and hot water, took no outside food for reasons of spiritual purity, and was on a mission to convert the Haitians to the purifying rituals of vegetarianism; while Henrietta was, like most Americans, simply afraid of getting sick.

Most of the more sophisticated guests of the Oloffson were quite happy to take their chances with the lobster bisque and the caviar – flown in from France and Miami selon l’arrivage Louis the maître d’ told everyone, proud of the Four-Star rating one minor travel magazine gave his kitchen. Few people remembered any discomfort, so thrilling was the hotel, the guests, and the whole ambience of Papa Doc’s Haiti.

Barbancourt Five-Star rum is the best rum in the world – smooth, rich and fragrant, tasting of caramel and cane – and it was almost lost in Jean’s famous rum punches which went down like iced tea, had a floral, fruity flavor, and had such cachet that even ordinary rum could not have ruined them. Once an icon becomes an icon, it takes a lot to dethrone it; but while Jean could have cut the Five-Star, he never did, catering instead to those connoisseurs who knew fine rum, had tasted the best of Puerto Rico and Nicaragua but who always came back to Barbancourt.

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No one ever left the Olaffson before at least three of Jean’s rum punches, and the sounds of the drunken partying carried far up the hills to Petionville where they met the voodoo tom-toms which beat all night until dawn.

Sitting on the verandah of the Oloffson drinking rum punches one can be forgiven for ignoring the misery of ordinary Haitians who lived in the poorest country in the hemisphere, were ruled by indifferent autocrats, intimidated by a secret police that put Stasi and the Shah’s Savak to shame, and who had little hope of change.  Such is the duality of foreign travel.

There are only a few countries in the world out of the more than fifty that I have visited or worked where not only did nothing go wrong but everything went right; and Haiti was one of them. Travelling in the Third World is no picnic; and from Angola to Zimbabwe I felt I was dodging one thing or another to just make it safely home. Pestilential airports, car-jacking, tropical diseases, horrendous road accidents, shakedowns, crime, corruption, and intimidation were the rule.  After a while all these ‘inconveniences’ became part of the environmental noise.  I was able to accept them for what they were, place them where they belonged, and live reasonably if not very well despite them.

Burundi, for example, has had more than its share of bloodshed, ethnic violence, and civil unrest.  When I visited during one of the calmer periods, I was told never to mention ethnicity, never to ask about Hutu-Tutsi history, and go about my business as though I were in Switzerland.  Burundi – when you leave the nasty bits aside as I was instructed to do – is a beautiful country. My fondest memories are eating long, civilized lunches on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, looking across the water to Zaire, and behind me up the steep slopes of the mountains to Rwanda.

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The restaurant – a simply converted residence of a Belgian expatriate – offered a fine three-course menu of soup, fresh Nile perch, and tartes aux fruits. I had a Pastis as an aperitif, a cold white Burgundy with the meal, and a fine Remy Martin cognac with coffee. It was all so civilized.  White linen tablecloths, Baccarat crystal and Christofle silver, impeccable service, and the lush, tropical vegetation on the spacious grounds.

Angola during my tenure had just emerged from a 20-year civil war, and the country was in a state of anarchy.  There was no police, no law and order, few hotel rooms and fewer restaurants, and a growing incivility everywhere.  It was the Wild West but far worse; and yet I found refuge.  La Isla, as the long peninsula extending into the Atlantic Ocean not far from Luanda was civilized, organized, and if you picked your spots, beautiful.  I needed an armed escort to make it from center-city to the Isla, but once at the restaurant and seated at a table at the edge of the white sand beach, under the palm trees, Luanda and its misery disappeared.  I ate fresh giant grilled shrimp, Pompano, and seafood bisque. The wines were from Spain, Portugal, and France.  The music was accessible, low key, and pleasant.

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The advantage of being an expatriate traveller in the Third World is that you can ignore what you prefer not to see.  I lived in India many years ago.  On my first day in Bombay, as I looked out over the Arabian Sea, heard the hawkers, touts, pan-wallahs; watched the Parsi ladies, beggars, rickshaw-pullers, and naked children; stood under the Gateway of India, saw the elegant grande dame of the harbor, the Taj Mahal Hotel, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It was wonderful.

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Letters from home always asked why I didn’t write about the poverty and the misery of India; but of course I never did because they were givens.  All else – the bazaars, temples, seaside, saris, beautiful women, and the inextricable chaos of South Asian cities – were more than I could handle. Why should I write about what my family already knew?   I had studied the sitar, learned Hindi, read Indian history and philosophy, travelled to every state and territory; and before I knew it five years had come and gone.

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Some friends criticized me for my callousness and indifference.  I led a privileged life in these countries, they said; and I owed them something – at least an acknowledgement of their penury and suffering.

Others shared my enthusiasm for good food, hotels, beaches, adventure, and romance.  A love affair is all the more exciting and passionate in a hot climate, under a ceiling fan, listening to the street sounds of Ahmedabad or Lucknow through an open window.  They envied the fact that I could leave family, responsibility, and mundane engagements behind and stay in old palaces, beachfront bungalows, and in the converted rest houses of Jean-Claude and Ceausescu.

Duality is a great thing if you can ‘embrace’ it – that is, marginalize the unpleasant, stow it away for professional review later, keep it out of sight; and enjoy the best that the country has to offer. Is there some obligation to commiserate? Is there a higher value in persistent compassion? Not at all.

Once I gave up my foreign adventures, I began to travel in my own country.  The South had always held a particular interest, perhaps because of my happy vacations to Florida as a teenager.  Twenty degrees, ice-and-snow, chains and wind one day; palm trees, beaches, saw-grass and Collins Avenue the next.  The South in many ways is a foreign country, especially the Deep South of the Mississippi Delta.

When I told of my experiences – my stays in restored antebellum mansions, plantation manors, and the refurbished urban residences of factors, merchants, and financiers; my walks on the levees, covered dish church suppers, hunting, and shooting the shit with good ol’ boys – my friends looked at me with a  cold, stony silence. “You never should have gone there”, they said. In doing so I was a traitor to Northern liberalism, complicit in Southern racism and backward fundamentalist conservatism. 

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Yes, I admitted.  There was that; but when the South had so much else to offer – so much history and tradition; so many regional idiosyncrasies, accents, and behavior; such great music, food, and the unforgettable beauty of the cotton fields – why dwell on it?

Duality again.

I travel much less now either abroad or in the US. I feel that I have gotten all that I can from my comfortable life ignoring the shadows.  I have not, however, turned to the more serious subject of poverty, inequality,or injustice.  I have skipped all that and moved to the only thing of importance now that I am older – dealing with the end of the line.  So I do nothing, it seems, except read the Apocrypha, John, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Harold Bloom, and the plays of Shakespeare, a more meaningful landscape at my stage of life.

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I have had a good run – no, a great run.  Not one regret, nor painful memories.  Thanks to duality I have led a charmed, untroubled, and exciting life. 

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