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

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Romance In The Time Of Corona–A Haitian Idyll In Port-au-Prince

Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, is dying, and  he reviews his life as the reality of his death sets in.  What did I do right? What did I do wrong? And does it matter now that I am faced with eternity?

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His supposed friends were nothing more than colleagues who eyed his corner office as he lay dying; his wife was happy to see this selfish, controlling man out of her life; and his children…his children? he barely knew them…respectful but distant.  Perhaps he had been ignorant and foolish to have tried to construct a hermetic world, one without inconvenience and bother? or perhaps not, since those whom he had kept out might be a solace in his last moments.

The Corona virus is not like the Plague of the 14th century, a horror of human horrors with death universal, certain, ugly, and awful; nor like the Spanish flu of 1917 which killed millions.  Within the perspective of human history – that history which includes Genghis Khan and the tens of millions that were slaughtered by his armies of the steppes; the Siberian labor camps of Stalin, Hitler’s Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the pogroms of Europe, the forced migrations of the Khmer Rouge; the murderous religious jihads of ISIS and Boku Haram – Corona is nothing.  A death toll almost insignificant compared to yearly deaths from cancer, heart disease, and dementia; a morbidity insignificant compared to infant diarrheas, pneumonias, and malnutrition in most of the Third World. Yet the modern Western and Asian world has panicked, created gulags of its own, spread  doomsday scenarios of The Wuhan Death and the end of civilization as we know it.

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Brent Alston wanted no part of it – not the COVID-19 virus itself, but the fear, panic, and disassembly that were its attendants.   Haiti – the country of Voodoo, dictatorship, poverty, and disease was a refuge, a place where violence and abuse were endemic.  There was no fear of Corona there because nothing could make the lot of the people any worse.  Haiti was the end of the existential line and therefore the only and best place to shelter.

Shelter was not in the lexicon of Haitians who had been through it all – pestilence, famine, autocracy, thievery, deforestation – and for whom anything less than Armageddon would pass unnoticed – and Brent wanted such a such a safe haven. 

Besides, his greatest loves had been Haitian – not all Haitian women but lovers on Haitian territory for whom like him, nationality had no salience or legitimacy.  Haiti – perhaps because of its lawlessness permissiveness – had always attracted the world’s emotional refugees.  The Tonton Macoutes could care less about illicit assignations and adulterous affairs as long as Papa Doc was given due respect and political space. These refugees understood that love in a dictatorship was a privileged affair – for them politics was only a distraction, and cinq-a-sept trysts at the Oloffson or in the hills above Petionville were all that mattered.

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Of course the reality was quite different.  Graham Greene in The Comedians best described the strange allure of Haiti and its menace .  The love affair between Mr. Brown and Martha could never happened outside Haiti – illicit because its adultery and because of its flirtation with international politics, the menace of the Tonton Macoutes, and Duvalier himself. Neither Greene nor any other journalist or author ever dismissed the horror of life under the brutal dictatorship of Papa and Baby Doc, but all acknowledged the special, adventurous, and romantic environment of Haiti under that oppression.

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Brent Alston had his Haitian affairs at the end of Baby Doc’s regime – a time when Haiti was still a patient, accommodating, peaceful place.  He dined in Petionville, Kenscoff, and even Port-au-Prince; fell asleep to the tom-toms in the far hills beyond and above Kenscoff; awoke to the heat and fishy, refuse- and rubber-burning smells of the capital;  and took chiffon rouge collective taxis from the Splendid all over the city to his office at the port.  Haiti was a willing suspension of disbelief – the killings of the Macoutes did not exist, nor the poverty and disease.  His life on the verandah of the Oloffson or by the pool at the Splendid was all that existed.  There were indeed at least two planes to life.

Expatriates are always attracted to one another because of the novelty and excitement of adventure beyond the reaches of family, profession, and responsibility.  Love in Bamako, Burundi, Bucharest, or Varna was always permitted.  There was no adultery or deception in these places; and so it was with Brent, happily married and a loving father who shed all propriety, left coat and hat behind ,and took a room in the Tennessee Williams suite with Usha.

The allure of travel – the romance of the road – has nothing to do with exotica, but with sexual affairs.  Wives and husbands, once goodbyes have been said on tarmacs or departure lounges are forgotten as soon as the aircraft lifts off.  The traveler is himself only, untethered and free beyond reach and responsibility.

No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.

The strangeness of a hotel room, the hotel itself, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”
In The Dead Hand Theroux describes the unsettling chaos of Calcutta –  kaleidoscopic and fascinating, but eventually claustrophobic and indecipherable. Calcutta is too much for a foreigner, too intense and unremittingly alien to take measure; too unlikely and unpredictable; too strange.  There is no refuge and no time for sorting out a Westerner’s preoccupation with justice, equality, moderation, and progress.  No time to process holiness, abject poverty and its inverse morality, idol-worship, profound spirituality, and crowds.

Brent would have felt no sense of intimacy without the voodoo drums of Haiti, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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They never talked about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They only shared experiences from New Brighton,  Harvard, and Spring Valley; or Radisson, Fort George, or Nemiscau. Haiti gave their stories a common context. New Brighton and Fort George would now only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

There is something disassembling about foreign places to which no one is immune.  Once one leaves the tarmac at Dulles, homegrown cultural constraints are loosened; and once once one lands in Niamey, Bamako, or Luanda they are untethered.  There is no liberation to compare.

It was not surprising that the Haitian love affair continued only as long as the lovers met in Haiti. Neither one ever suggested that they meet in Boston, New York, or Miami; and when her summer internships were over and his last contract delivered, they knew that their affair was over.  Their friendship was uniquely, irrevocably Haitian.

There are always regrets that disturb the phenomenon, cause oscillations. A frequent traveler never got over his love for a Danish woman who left him for an Angolan lover; a Palestinian Parsi persona non grata in Israel, her home; or a doctor from Timisoara who had attended Ceausescu before his death; but his disappointments were never discouraging.  He was never looking for a mate. Love was never unique nor permanent, but only temporal.

He had never had a satisfying affair in the United States.  The casual liaisons and even more continuous relationships with women in California and Nebraska, although intimate and special, were never the same as those in Calcutta or Yaoundé.  There was no reason why women in California or Nebraska were less appealing than those met abroad.  On paper they were all within the margins; but there was something disassembling about affairs in tropical climates.
The same women, suggestive over gin pahits on the verandah of the Tallygunge Club in Calcutta were different. There could be no possible explanation for the liaison between two lovers on Anjouan,  an island in the Comoros, both accounted for and neither unhappy.   It must have been the ylang-ylang the microclimate, and the isolation.

What brought the lovers together in Haiti was Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking on a balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning in Moroni; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti; if it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

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So it was that Brent in the time of COVID-19 and under the flimsiest of pretenses travelled to Haiti.  The country in permanent political and social disarray had no lockdowns, no social distancing, no sheltering in place.  The bars, clubs, and dancehalls of Carrefour were filled to capacity every night, the French restaurants in Petionville still serving foie gras and bouillabaisse, and the prostitutes and touts as visible as ever by the port and on the docks.  It wasn’t that Haiti had not hears about the Corona menace.  it didn’t care.  What worse could possibly happen to a country that had suffered all?

The drums above Kenscoff were as loud and persistent as Brent had remembered them, the rum punches on the verandah of the Oloffson as tart and sweet as they had ever been, the mulatto women as beautiful, and the weather as warm and tropical. He and his Haitian lover met as pre-arranged at the Splendid, had dinner at Cote Cour, Cote Jardin the Haitian grandchild of Eric Ripert, Executive Chef of Le Bernardin, and liqueur at the Oloffson with the grandson of Petit Pierre, a young man who affected his father’s panache and charm.

Brent understood that Haiti was a pause, an interlude, a willing suspension of disbelief; but it was no mirage.  There were indeed such places of unembarrassed, irresponsible pleasure from which he would eventually have to return.  As much as he hated the idea of the place of Puritanism, rectitude, and fearful watchfulness that he had left, it was his home.  And therein lay the dilemma.

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