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

Monday, December 10, 2018

Finding True Love In A Dictatorship - Papa Doc Made It Easy

The Oloffson was the place to meet the love of one’s life, even more so because of its romance, the place for European glitterati and American artists, and the precariousness of Haiti itself.  One did not casually visit Haiti or stay at the Oloffson unless by specific design and determination.  No travel agent would have suggested it during any of the post-Duvalier regimes even for the adventurous few who wanted to see Victorian gingerbread Haiti before it became Americanized. Not everyone felt comfortable at the Oloffson, but those who did were made for each other.

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Of course there was no chance whatsoever of Americanization happening.  Haiti seemed to be doomed to be one of the world’s worst - deforested, denuded, pillaged by one corrupt regime after another, desperately poor, and dangerous. 

Even the worst of evils has a positive side, and under the long reigns of Papa and Baby Doc , one could dance in Carrefour, walk the port and the old downtown waterfront, shop at the iron market, and eat at the French and Italian restaurants up the hill in Petionville and Kenscoff without a second thought.  Public safety was a by-product of the Tontons Macoutes for whom any civil disturbance, particularly crime against foreigners was a threat to national order and as importantly national image.

So the Oloffson was the place to visit, to see and be seen, throughout the Duvalier years.  The tontons macoute, shades, porkpie hats, and Lugers added to the romance of the hotel; and Petit Pierre, featured in Greene’s The Comedians was the actual dwarfish dandy who still drank rum punches at the bar, trim and elegant with cane, boutonniere, and gold jewelry.  Haiti’s Bobby Short played piano at the Oloffson, the same Cole Porter tunes, the same phrasing, style, and easy patter, a Bobby Short clone except for his blackness, Papa Doc’s proud black bourgeoisie far darker than the monied mulattoes of Kenskoff who never came down the mountain to hear him play.

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The two lovers in question – he an American recruited by his government to help Haiti’s foundering economy; she a European musicologist taken with the African roots of meringue – had no more in common than Haiti, a country for those who loved it either a lover, a doppelganger, or the perfect cultural angel; never just a place, one more entry in a musical archive or case study for business school.  The tom-toms in the hills above Petionville, the voodoo, Baron Samedi, and even Papa Doc himself were never just accidental, fictional props to their personal dramas. 

They had both been warned against Haiti.  Nothing in Angola, Chad, or East Timor was like the particular lawlessness of this place.  Every other place of civil disorder, autocracy, and oppression could be understood.  The rise to power of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot were understandable, even predictable; but nothing could be compared to this cannibalistic ritualized, pagan regime.  The lovers, despite their years in black holes and civil wars, were ingenues when it came to Haiti.

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Yet both were accustomed to ‘skating’ – pirouettes on glass above Idi Amin, Edris Debry, Bokassa, Mugabe, and Botha – untouched by the vandalism and murder below.  Privileged travelers with pukka passports, international recognition and home office support.  If the nastiness of pogroms and death squads came too close, they would be withdrawn, secure.

Skating was one of the perks of the business for those who chose their profession for the adventure not the money or the recognition.  Why would anyone choose to be  a clinician in Springfield when the most unpredictable, entirely free, and limitless experience was there for the asking? A life of hazards with lifelines; falaises with Medevac and helicopter rescue.

The criticisms of their attitude and approach were many, consistent, and predictable.  How could they live with their consciences, eating foie gras at Cote Cour, Cote Jardin in Petionville; Nile perch from Lake Tanganyika in Burundi; coquilles St. Jacques in Dakar; or fresh lobster on the Luandan peninsula when millions were being tortured, imprisoned, and disappeared?  Yet the Hutu-Tutsi civil wars, the vicious oppression of the anti-democratic forces in Chad, the derogation of civil rights in Madagascar were of little import to the lovers.

It was no surprise, then, that they found each other on the veranda of the Oloffson, each drinking one of Petit Pierre’s rum punches, looking out over the swimming pool where the fictional Doctor Philipot’s body was found, listening to the voodoo drums in the hills above the hotel, and wondering whether the Norwegian Line cruise ship would stay or leave.

They, like the characters in Greene’s novel were comedians – actors for whom the real Port-au-Prince did not exist.  They, each on their own stage, were playing, inventing, and creating new scenarios about Haiti.  The ‘real world’ of the Duvaliers did not exist and never existed.  It was a backdrop, fitting for their own personal performances.

To charges of complicity – the more foie gras eaten in Petionville, the more dances danced in Carrefour, the more nights spent at the Oloffson, the more support given to the murderous Duvalier regime, the worse things would become – they turned a deaf ear.  Life was to be lived, tasted, enjoyed, and ingested without concerns for provenance.  In the world of international development, there was no such thing as ‘responsible sourcing’.

When one of the lovers had been travelling in the English-speaking provinces of Cameroon and had stopped to eat at a rest house far from the border, he had asked his Cameroonian host what was on the menu.  He was told not to ask, a code for bush meat, whatever one can catch– monkeys, field rats, lizards, and grubs.   

Whether in Haiti, Tanzania, Chad, Angola, or East Timor, one should never asked what one was eating, what was cooking, what was behind the curtain.

She had friends who had criticized her for her travels in the Deep South which could only be considered traitorous and complicit.  The slave-owning, racist, backward society of the Mississippi was still alive and well and travel there was tantamount to treason.  Forget the reconciled civil conflict, the cultural unity of a United States, the predictable trajectory of a human history propelled by self-interest and territorialism.  The South was evil and no one should offer it succor, support, or recognition.

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There are many reasons for successful pairings – family, breeding, looks, intelligence, spirit – but philosophy is never one, or at least never mentioned.  The two lovers found each other because of indifference.  They cared only for what they saw. 
I am an observer, a reader of signs
A decipherer of origins
An eye-painter
Neither cared for implications.  Haiti was the Oloffson, Petit Pierre, rum punches, and Carrefour.  Burundi was Capitaine au Fenouille.  Senegal was Le Dagorne and the corniche.  Angola was giant grilled shrimp.  Antananarivo foie gras.  Bamako was ‘la France profonde’, the Deep South hoop skirts, pilgrimage, and plantation homes. 

The Oloffson was not the only place they could have met – there were hundreds of other places with similar cachet – but the Oloffson had to be the place if serendipity had any place at all.  Haiti was the most corrupt, the most venal, the most oppressive, and the most consequently poor and desperate place not only in the Western Hemisphere, but everywhere.  It had to be there, on the breezy veranda overlooking the pool, the palm-lined driveway, and the city beyond that the lovers were to meet.  They only saw the palm trees and the bougainvillea, smelled the scents of the hills above Kenscoff, listened to the noises of the Victorian gingerbread houses.  The poverty, mud and disrepair, the malaria, dysentery, and police did not exist.

What better, what more romantic, what more idyllic than to exist in a such an invented real world – the rum bar, the veranda, Petit Pierre, and the bougainvillea were certainly real – while being able to ignore the more real world beyond?  it was a marriage of consonant souls – neither cared for anything beyond the palms and bougainvillea, Lake Tanganyika, the corniche, or the old pre-Soviet European neighborhoods of Bucharest.   Devaluations of currency, trade agreements, compromises with Europe and the Unites States, cooperation with China meant nothing to each of the lovers and even less when they were partners. 

Lovers are always said to live in their own worlds, and in the cases of these two, no world was more unique, better, and apart.

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