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

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Voodoo Drums And The Tonton Macoutes–The Allure Of Sex In A Dangerous Place

Graham Greene wrote about illicit love in the regime of Papa Doc, a time of suspicion, threat, and intimidation.  His characters, like all of Greene’s heroes are diffident, unromantic, fatalistic but somehow annealed by Duvalier and his thugs.  There is something to love under the worst conditions to make it worth chancing, even though it might not be worth much elsewhere. 

Bret Allen made as many trips as possible to Haiti during the Duvalier years, found every excuse to visit, cadged and conned his way to contracts and consultancies, all to be in a place where not only did nothing go wrong but everything went right.
Many frequent travelers describe such feelings as those of kinship. There is something about a city or even a country - atmosphere, rhythm, personality, character, setting – that has a particular and unique resonance; an immediacy. Bret could not disaggregate the many factors which contributed to his sense of cultural familiarity; and in fact wondered why this benighted, corrupt, autocratic state could have such a hold on him.

Perhaps it was the voodoo after all, he thought; the backdrop of all things Haitian, even more pervasive and influential than Brazilian/Dahomey Candomblé, another incarnation of African animism – and far more powerful in expression.  Voodoo was more violent, more sinister, more in touch with ordinarily sublimated aggression and primitive passion.

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Perhaps it was just elitism – the cocky sense of the well-travelled tourist who ‘finds’ an ‘unspoiled’ place.  No doubt there was something to that criticism.  Haiti is not for everyone, but an extraordinary discovery for a few.
It might even have been the dark threat of the Duvaliers and their Tonton henchmen. One could never be totally safe, after all, and as the post-Duvalier period showed, the resentment against the family and their autocratic, punishing rule was not far beneath the surface.

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Whatever the reason, when Bret stepped onto the tarmac, smelled raw fires, frangipani, sewage, and roasting meat, and walked past the Tonton Macoutes smoking on the verandah and watching, he knew that he was home.
It was not surprising, therefore, that Bret met Lauren Chennault, a French Canadian whose background, language, education, and culture were far different from his.  She had been born and brought up in Baie-James, at 52 N. Latitude not far from the Artic, Hudson Bay, and the Indian nations of the Northwest Territories.  Her village was half-French, half-Cree.  Her father had moved up there after years in Southern Quebec, started a general store with his savings, had three children, and never left. He sent Lauren and her two brothers to school in Montreal, and she was the only one not to return to Baie-James. A religious girl, she had studied at a convent school and was invited by one of the sisters to join her for a summer in Haiti where the Church had a Catholic mission.

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She like Bret felt curiously at home in Haiti; and she often wondered how a girl from the sub-Artic, convent-schooled, and very parochial in character, cultural, and outlook, could find kinship in Haiti. Her reasons were not that different from Bret’s but since she had spent most of her life in a very simple, isolated monochrome community; and Port-au-Prince was a circus, a kaleidoscope, an impossibly foreign place, her reactions were even more exaggerated and pronounced.  

She and Bret met at the Toulon where her classmates had gone for lunch and a swim.  They were all staying at the Church dormitory – a severe and unrestored building on Delmas – and often crossed town to eat lambi creole and swim in the large and, unusual for Haiti, clean pool.

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He introduced himself and asked if she would like a tour of the hotel.  The view of the port and the Kenscoff hills was worth a visit, and he would introduce her to the manager who was a musician and artist.  He asked her to have dinner with him in Petionville, and they spent an evening at the Côté Cour, Côté Jardin, a restaurant which specialized in both local Creole and French cuisine.

They had little in common.  Bret was from an old pedigreed New England family, a product of boarding school and Harvard; and she was more Cree than French.  She had learned how to skin seals, to make sealskin leggings and mukluks, and to trek from the Bay to the interior with Indian friends. Her French was mixed with Cree, and her Catholicism, even after four years with the nuns of St. Mary’s, was a good part Native American animism.

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What brought them together, however, was Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking in his balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti.  If it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, 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.

Image result for images macaya beach hotel haiti

It is not surprising that their love affair continued only as long as they 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, their affair was over.

Greene’s diffident, fatalistic character finds himself eventually, pulls himself out of predictability , leaves his life of compromise and indifference, and his incidental affair with the Mexican Ambassador’s life. He does something meaningful, although his adventure in the Haitian bush has too many reverses, too much personal jealousy, too little truly heroic character for any redemption. Brown flees Haiti for the Dominican Republic, where he finds work as an undertaker’s assistant.

Bret Allen’s affair was one of externalities, avoidable when necessary and incorporated when convenient.  A love affair in Duvalier’s Haiti (this time with Baby Doc) was intermittent, passionate, but never inflamed.  It was that same depressing reality behind Haiti’s Victorian, gingerbread, dangerous allure that shuttered any passion in Brown’s affair that limited Bret’s. 

Brown was no interloper.  He had bought the ‘Oloffson’, lived in one of its suites, paid off the authorities, gave free drinks to the regime, made do with the remaining trickle of visitors, and lived without much purpose.  Bret was indeed an interloper, a wealthy one, an adventure tourist, gilded with ‘doing good’, listened to the tom toms in the hills above Kenscoff knowing that the zombie ceremonies were not for him, that Baron Samedi was a totem, and not really the incarnation of the Doctor. 

Yet, that was one of the privileges of wealth and an adventurous spirit.  Why not taste the strange concoction that was Haiti, demur when it came to more, and return back to Beacon Hill?

Lauren Chennault was of the same ilk, perhaps more attuned to the unusual than Bret because of her childhood in the indigenous Arctic; but more credit perhaps to her for having made the elision to tropical curiosity  Some outliers from the hinterland never can make do out of context, taste and smell Haiti and run.

In any case, Haiti is known for its trysts and clandestine affairs.  Even the most inured lover can find newness and sexual inspiration there.  Now, it is a country with barely reason to exist – a lawless, ungoverned, wild, savage place that seems to have reverted back to its most primitive roots.

For those who had been able to dip into its exotica before this sorry demise, remembrances were all good.

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