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

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Voodoo, Papa Doc, And Petit Pierre–Skating Above The Misery

Frederick Algeron was taken from the Graham Greene suite of the Oloffson Hotel at three in the morning – roughly and unexpectedly by the Tonton Macoutes, Papa Doc’s secret police; and only through the intercession of Petit Pierre, the dapper martinet who knew everyone who mattered in Port-au-Prince, especially the inner circle of the Presidential Palace, was he released from Gonaives prison. 

‘A case of mistaken identity’, Petit Pierre explained to Henri Fougere, Special Assistant to the President, head of the Macoutes, former Army colonel, feared executioner, and the only man to see for a political favor. ‘This is not Frederic Algeron, the most wanted Cuban infiltrator and Castro operative, but Frederick Algeron of Carson City, Nevada’.  The Secret Service was only doing its duty, explained Fougere; and once Algeron had been cossetted, gagged, and bagged, there was no way for them to assess his nationality. 

“Mistakes happen, and please offer Mr. Algeron our apologies and one of your famous rum punches”.  The Special Assistant was referring to Petit Pierre’s position at the Oloffson – greeter, amanuensis, charming host, living reminder of Greene’s The Comedians set in Haiti in his hotel and featuring him. 

Algeron thought of taking the next flight home but was reluctant to lose Evelyne, the beautiful mulatto from Kenscoff whom he had met a year earlier in Miami and had long planned to see again.  The meeting had finally materialized and he and Evelyne were to go to Macaya, a five-star resort on the beach of Les Cayes; to the casinos and clubs of Carrefour, and to Cape Haitian and La Citadelle. 

Image result for image beautiful traditional haitian women

Haiti could be difficult, he knew; but the romance of the place – the tom-toms in the hills above Petionville, the voodoo ceremonies in Cite Soleil, Baron Samedi and the walk of the zombies – would make up for the politics.  

Haiti was the poorest country in the hemisphere by far – a benighted, denuded blight in the Caribbean, not the Pearl of the Antilles, not Yellow Bird and palm trees, not tropical beaches and coral but a beaten place of slums, drug running, disappearances, and intimidation – but this miserable penury was never seen by tourists who were escorted in and out of resorts, casinos, and restaurants by careful handlers. 

Even the worst of evils has a positive side, and under the long reigns of Papa 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 a tarnish on national image.

Haiti – perhaps because of its lawlessness and 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.

Image result for Petit Pierre Oloffson hotel images

In any case, Algeron was shaken by his experience – the real Haiti had intruded on his idyll – and he was unsure whether or not he could put it out of his mind despite the attentions of the beautiful Evelyne.  He decided that she, the undeniable romance of Haiti, and the anecdotal value of the adventure outweighed any danger.  What chance was there that such a rude interruption would again occur?

Besides, he was comfortable ‘skating’ – pirouettes on glass above Papa Doc – untouched by the vandalism and murder below.  He was a privileged traveler with a good passport, international recognition, and embassy support; and if Duvalier’s goons came again, he would be withdrawn, secure. A life of hazards with lifelines; falaises with Medevac and helicopter rescue.

So he stayed, dined in Petionville, Kenscoff, and 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 Oloffson all over the city.  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 was all that existed.  There were indeed at least two planes to life.

The Oloffson was not the only place he could have stayed for his first assignation with Evelyne – there were other places with some 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.  Perversely, love had to be there, on the breezy veranda overlooking the pool, the palm-lined driveway.  

From there he 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?

In fact Algeron would have felt no sense of romance or sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums of Haiti, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the Oloffson, 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. Haiti, enabler of romance, fixed it so he didn’t notice.

Image result for images macaya beach hotel haiti

Algeron 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.  

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