My Haitian vacation

Fish

WHILE WRITING THE PREVIOUS post, which was for April Fool’s Day, I went looking for a black dude in a top hat for the illustration. I did a photo search for Papa Doc Duvalier, and there it was. No surprise.

Papa Doc, a nasty piece of work, was a longtime dictator of Haiti, and he died in 1971. Just four years later, I landed, traveling alone, on an Air France plane in the capital of Port-au-Prince. I had flown there on a whim after quitting my job on the San Juan Star  in nearby Puerto Rico due to an ongoing strike.

(Thanks go out to the Communist Party for that, Red amigos.)

I was footloose, in my early 30s, and jobless with no gainful employment in sight.

I had a reservation at a guesthouse. I don’t recall how I found that guesthouse or made the reservation. It’s been a long time, and the internet did not exist in those ancient days. I took a taxi to the guesthouse from the airport. I asked the cabbie who was president, and he told me it was Baby Doc, the son of Papa Doc.

Obviously, I had done little homework before flying to Haiti.

What I recall about the guesthouse, which was very nice, is that it was painted canary yellow and had a big swimming pool. The only other guests were a couple of fellows from France prowling for underage prostitutes. One evening they invited me out on one of those excursions, but I took a pass.

I remember nothing of my room at the guesthouse. What I recall is the sunny side porch where we were served breakfast eggs while a parrot sang nearby, and I remember fresh orange juice and cut fruit.

And I remember swimming solo in the pool on warm afternoons.

Taxis took me downtown, which was not far away, and I would wander through mobs of people. Once I took a jitney to somewhere, probably just so I could say I did and write about it almost 40 years later. A nice-looking passenger offered to be my “girlfriend” for a price, but I took a pass on that too.

The tongues of Haiti are French and Creole. I speak neither, and I encountered few people who spoke English. This was a major problem, of course. I had no French-English dictionary or phrase book. At one point, I needed toothpaste, and I had no idea how to ask for it. Funny what sticks in your mind.

One thing that stuck with me was a night walk through the very center of town. It wasn’t late, 10 p.m. or so, and the unlit sidewalks were strewn with sleeping bodies, homeless people, lying head to toe. The quantity was shocking, and there I was walking among them in the dark. A dictatorship is safe.

Another day, wandering aimlessly through a shanty town, I saw the word Bar at the entrance of a small cinderblock building. I entered, sat and ordered a nice cold one. There were no trappings of a bar, and the “bartender” told me he would be right back. He vanished out onto the dirt street.

About 10 minutes later, he returned with a cold beer that he had clearly purchased elsewhere, perhaps on credit. I drank that beer and paid. I did not order another because I didn’t have all day.

Okay, I did have all day, but I left anyway.

Another day, I don’t remember when or even how many days I was in Haiti, I visited the Grand Hotel Oloffson just so I could say I had been there and sipped booze in the beautiful bar. Graham Greene set much of his novel The Comedians  in the Hotel Oloffson during Papa Doc’s terrible times.

I see the hotel has dropped Grand from its name, but otherwise it looks the same.

Yet another day I went snorkling on a coral reef, motorboated there with a bunch of tourists who looked more touristy than I did with my black pirate beard. I said nothing to them, and I remember treading water on the sea’s surface, snorkle in my mouth, looking at the sinister mountains, dark and green, in the distance.

Haiti is not a happy place. Though the colors are bright, and so are the fish in the emerald sea.

* * * *

(Note: I touched on this trip in a post I wrote years go on the now-defunct Zapata Tales.)

19 thoughts on “My Haitian vacation”

  1. ‘Tis a tale told well. Speaking of tales — or tails, is that you in the clever illustration in the background? Fixated on treasure in the water rather than the “sinister mountains, dark and green, in the distance?” I like the use of “sinister” in that phrase. It brings the feel of Haiti together in a single thread.

    I suspect I have never been to Haiti. At least, not according to my current memory. And I would rather visit several other places before I get there. I often wonder how Haiti could go from one of the richest islands in the Caribbean to one of the world’s economic and social basket cases. But you answered that. The dictatorship that enforced security also ruined an entire nation. Not unlike the fascist Castro cartel in Cuba.

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    1. Steve: I am perplexed by what you write. You “suspect” you have never been to Haiti? I promise (well, almost) that spending time in Haiti is not something one forgets. If you’re not sure, I would bet you’ve never set foot there. Two clues: Everybody is black, and everybody is speaking French or Creole. Kinda hard to confuse with San Juan or Santo Domingo where a third are black, and everybody is speaking Spanish.

      I’m not sure I’d want to go there now. Things seem fluid, which is likely a bad thing. Things were not fluid in the slightest when I was there, to put it mildly, due to the ham-fisted Duvaliers.

      As for that being me in the illustration, well, sure, yes, it’s me. I promise. I was trying to look up the mermaid’s skirt, only to discover that she was not wearing one. Then I glanced down and noticed I had turned into a half-fish. It was very disturbing.

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  2. I have never been to Haiti. Been to the Dominican Republic though. Stayed in a resort, a promise to the lady who had waited for me to finish up a job in Alberta. I don’t like being a tourist, but a promise is a promise kept.

    On a side trip, we went to the cane fields. The workers all came from Haiti. I talked to the guide we were with, about the shanty housing that was strewn along the highway. They live like dogs, he said, with somewhat of an air and a hint of disgust in his voice. They eat the cane rats, some as big as a small dog.

    My compromise was that I would agree to be in the resort for a week. Then I wanted to rent a motorbike and ride up to Haiti and back. Nobody would rent me a bike.

    The hotels were magnificent, the roads dismal, the schools were bare, no window glass, no doors. I asked about this, as to the reason why. I was told that 80% of the money coming into the Dominican Republic left to Europe or the U.S. as the resorts were all foreign owned. The Dominican people were kind to a fault, poor as church mice.

    During the second week, I found an escape route out to a small village and, with my faulty Spanish, I got a better understanding of the poverty that grips that country as well.

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    1. Señor Peterson: During that time I also was in the Dominican Republic, twice. Never got out of the capital, however. You don’t mention how long ago you were there. I hope it’s getting better. As bad as it is, however, it’s better than Haiti. Haitians often go — or try to — to the Dominican Republic. It rarely, if ever, flows in the other direction. Kind of like Cubans rafting to the United States. Nobody rafts in the other direction. And for the same reason.

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      1. I don’t know if it’s better or not. It was about 10 years ago we were there. The lady I was with loved it. I’m just not much of a sitter-arounder. We did a couple of tours, one to the capital city, saw Columbus’s son’s house as he was the harbourmaster there for a time, I believe, maybe governor, not sure.

        I remember I gave money to a young server girl to get me a Harley T-shirt from the Capital City Harley dealer. She came back with five T’s, but not one from the Harley dealer. I asked why. She said I (she) could buy five T’s for the same price as one from the Harley store. I didn’t want to waste your money.

        I know the airport was privately owned by some family in the Dominican Republic, cost $20 a head to leave the country. Most of all, the cane fields were owned by some conglomerate in Cuba, headed by two brothers, I believe.

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        1. Bob: Great story about the T-shirt purchase, and it is a good example of how folks in different cultures have totally different priorities.

          As for the cane fields being owned by two brothers in Cuba, it would have been people high in the Cuban government. It’s just another dictatorship, but they have to “talk the talk” of communism to justify themselves. And they walk the walk too, but they do it with the citizens, not themselves, of course.

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  3. Hotel Oloffson looks like a favorite place in Key West. I wish I was there right now — we’re due for another 6-10 inches of snow this afternoon.

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    1. Loulou: Ah, Key West. Went there too, around the same time in the 1970s. Flew in from Miami on a DC-3 passenger plane. From what I’ve read it’s changed a lot since then.

      You are correct. It’s a long way from snow. Perhaps you should pull up stakes, and leave snow for good.

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      1. I drove the Overseas Highway to Key West in 1970, while visiting my first wife’s family in Miami. I remember seeing a famous Florida politician campaigning for the U.S. Senate, the former “Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles on the causeway to Miami Beach holding up a sign. He walked from the Florida panhandle all the way to the Keys, over 1000 miles.

        We started out on our trip in the evening, and I remember seeing a beautiful full tangerine moon all the way to Key West.

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        1. Andrés: I remember Chiles. Not the walk, however. I was long gone from Florida by the 1970s.

          Yep, Key West is nice. However, I believe that it — much like New Orleans — has made itself perhaps a tad too precious, cute and “eccentric,” which I put in quotes due to its being a bogus eccentricity. Probably to attract the tourist dollar in both cases, and I imagine it works real well.

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      2. My husband was stationed in Key West as a navy EOD guy in the early 60’s. He says it was pretty grungy then. We’ve been there a couple of times – in 1990 and 1992 I think – and it was sunny, warm, jasmine in the air, great food, not too crowded. I want to remember it that way so I doubt we’ll go back. I feel the same way about Venice. There are cruise ships that go there now that are taller than any building in the city.

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        1. Loulou: My wife visited Venice in the mid-1990s. She loved it. I’ve never been there, but I hear it is absolutely infested with tourists. I probably would prefer some other destination.

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  4. Thanks for the wonderful post card. I used to work with a guy whose 70-something mother lived in Haiti (probably still does) in the mountains, doing missionary work. I always wanted to meet her. Her son was a great guy, but I’d imagine she’s an intrepid soul to go live there and try to help.

    I personally can’t imagine going to Haiti now, what with the gangs, crime, cholera, and God-knows-what-else. I recall after the earthquake, 60 Minutes or some such news program did a story on how there were relief supplies sitting in port for weeks, tied up in government red tape, while people starved or died from sicknesses that could have been treated with the medicines tied up in the dock.

    It seems like a truly evil government.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Puebla, Puebla
    Where we may finally have crossed the line between too cold and too hot.

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    1. Kim: Missionaries can be found in dreadfully perilous places because they believe God will look over them. The bad news is that sometimes he does. Sometimes he does not.

      Getting a bit warm for you there? Wait till you get to Mérida, from what I have heard and read. You will arrive in the very worse part of the year. Enjoy!

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      1. Thanks. I am mentally prepared for Mérida, with an expectation that it will be like Houston in August. I also have shorts and sandals with me. Here in Puebla, the temperature is fine, but the hotel room (despite my leaving the door open with the fan blowing for several hours last night) didn’t get colder than maybe 78°-80° which is warmer than I’m used to sleeping. But I will enjoy this trip, regardless of whatever the weather throws at me. Saludos!

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        1. Kim: Houston is bad in August. New Orleans is worse due to a heavier humidity problem. I recall a coworker on the New Orleans newspaper (a native New Orleanian, so he was well and long acquainted with summer misery) returning long ago from a vacation to Mérida. He told me he had never experienced such oppressive heat in his life. Now that’s saying something. Brace yourself.

          I trust you will spring for a hotel room with AC in Mérida. My head reels at the notion that you rented an AC-free room in Puebla. The Hotel Colonial, just off the plaza, is highly recommended. You can afford it. Killer mole in the restaurant too.

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          1. In DF, I’ve mostly stayed in a/c-free hotels and almost always have been perfectly comfortable. I had no trouble sleeping last night, but it was warm. As for Mérida, I will indeed spring for a/c. Otherwise it won’t be much fun at all. I don’t mind sweating while I’m wandering around, but I likely couldn’t sleep in a non-a/c hotel in Mérida. If I get uncomfortable here, I’ll check out the Hotel Colonial.

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