Report from Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, Haiti, January, 2019
I will not say, Let me be clear, nor make any claim as to the accuracy or objective truth (if there is such a thing) of what follows. I say this because when I read acclaimed writers, Danticat, or Berlinski, or Shoccachis, or reporters in the New York Times (paper of record), I do not recognize their depictions of Haiti. We judge in terms of our own stuff of life. A professor of mine at Cal State L.A. threw this out one day in relation to Donne or Dickinson, the paired subjects of his seminar. Dickinson, precursor of the absurd, he called her. I don’t remember his epithet for Donne, though I’m sure there was one. Dr. Guyer was wise, exacting, dedicated to the new at the time structural criticism. For all, I thank him, but especially for that remark about the singularity of the stuff of life, for his choice of the word stuff, because this is the report of a dreamer, a fantasist, who can wake up in her upstairs Los Angeles bedroom with plans to descend to the house she grew up in in Haiti, black and white tile floors high polished, doors wide flung. Who imagines retiring (eventually) to a pink thatch-roofed caille, furnished with tin wear, ceramic lanterns and goat skin rugs, with Haitian paintings, high backed chairs, their sisal seats covered with cushions. There she will rest her bones.
We, in my report, are Marian Shaw Lipschutz, 78, and Elizabeth Shaw Cronbach, 74, born in New York in the 40s, now longtime residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively. We have recently returned from a week in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, Haiti. We did not fall down or faint or get sick. We did not crash or get hung up in Miami, in spite of shorthanded control tower and TSA staff. We were not kidnapped. We did not (as we did in 2003) encounter barricades of burning tires, thrown rocks, or gunshots, although we received, almost daily, US Embassy warnings of political demonstrations (manifestations) springing up in different parts of Port-au-Prince, on the Rue Capois, at various points in Delmas. Action to take, according to the Embassy: Avoid the area. Well, duh!
In the beginning
Nothing is but what is not
These little contretemps …
No water in the pool, no water in our room, no light to read by, painting behind the desk askew, welcome rhum punch in plastic cups or nothing but passionfruit juice from a can, upper floors sloping, rain out of season, mirror over the toilet, we cannot see ourselves, water promised, never arrives, “we’re working on it,” the sheets have been slept on we’re sure of it, no place in the shower to put the stingy “Marble Bar,” crumbled into useless tiny shards, icy water, hard, lather beyond imagining, breakfast bread included narrow, elongated, tasteless hot dog roll, our driver born again proselytizer, talk shows and Christian rock/rap in Creole, not popular songs so long to hear, our old house en haut Turgeau grotesque, beyond redemption, ruined shell of the Sacré Coeur, Port-au-Prince pasted together, city of rocks, cement and cinder blocks and sweat and spit and pee no public toilets and self aggrandizing phallic gaspillage, some waster president or other, hideous tower unachieved, Champs de Mars dingy, historical museum receptionist hunched over online solitaire. Alarmingly unprepared (by our Haitian travel agent) for flight to Jacmel, which airline, who is our pilote? Absolutely no idea, no electricity two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon, computers sprew befuddling papers, never the right one, the one we MUST sign to get out of here, roads revert to rubble, misery when it rains, traffic out of control, panne de caoutchouc, flat tire, ha, big surprise, exploding population, 77 filthy gourdes to the dollar, fatra (trash), do not throw unheeded, too few traffic lights, cars and motos scrambling, polluting, hopscotching monumental jams, pop-up directors, gas lines, political manifestations, government failure to pay, produce gnarled, stunted, no glossy aubergine, no citrons, no local lettuce, butter, eggs, or rice, the sea, warm, caressing, turquoise becoming blue, becoming purple, may be unsanitary, sand scarce, here, then there, now nowhere, rocks grind us to pieces, purple blotches up and down my arms. It’s all a fraud, a snare and a delusion, to use a favorite phrase of my mother’s, an imitation, a con game, it’s tell them what they want to hear, the menu lies, people coming and going from all over the world, empty hotel, the online photos taken years ago.
The more or less orderly Port-au-Prince airport, air-conditioning, escalator, fancy ads, competency, where no one is shouting Haïtiens d’Abord, just to stick it to us, to remind us we do not belong here, has deceived us.
Who would come here? I would. I will repeal, steam clean every mishap, refuse to be a spoiled American brat. A tourist. Lowest form of animal life. My father was tired of their announcing I’m an American citizen, pounding on the roof of the car, of their horror tales, as in naked savages came out of the bushes, translation: peasant Haitians sparing their clothes, wading into the Limbé River, into the flash flood, to save their lives.Tired of their questions, what kind of tree is that? An arbol (Spanish for tree) tree, he used to say.
I have jumbled on purpose two hotels (the Oloffson in Port-au-Prince and Cyvadier in Jacmel) to paint a picture, to administer the shock of dashed American, First World (so called), Western expectations, disappointments. How long does it take to resurface? A day? Up and down, back and forth, for a week? Historic Hotel Oloffson, built for the Sam family in the late 19th century, legendary setting for his novel, The Comedians, 1966, by Graham Greene, famous for its guest list, including Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and John Gielgud, home of RAM, of mizik rasin (roots music), is not what it was on our last visit in 2003. The buzz of reporters and photographers, the sense of being in a hot spot, that everyone who is anyone feeling, mixing up class and color, politics and romance, safety and danger, evil and good, is gone.There are a few people here, but are they guests, hangers on, speaking French? Italian? Paint is peeling, books left behind in our room are dusty, dampened, tablecloths doubtful, dilapidation everywhere, a sad decline. I was counting on swimming to help control the edema in my right leg. I’ll work around, get over it. We’ll stay the night at least. Tension dissolves somewhat as we rise to the occasion, prove we are who we say we are, not strangers demanding what we never should have expected in the first place, but old timers, old hands. The management is unapologetic, offers passes to swim at the Marriott, 7 minutes away, not counting traffic jams.
We stay. Unlike the man who recently boasted in the LAT of a full refund obtained from the Doubletree in Portland, Oregon, where his room was without water, we do not even ask for a discount on our $132 a night room, deciding as an experiment to spend our last night at Le Plaza Hotel on the Champs de Mars. This hotel has lovely grounds and some distinctive local carving, objets d’art. There are hints of foreign business interests, Frenchmen (or are they Belgians?) in the pool, apparent intermingling in small groups of locals with foreign guests, but the room, comfortable by American standards, complete with cottage cheese ceiling, could be anywhere. I wished I were back at the Oloffson.
This is the story of my trip (I’ll try not to speak for my sister): this revolution in thinking which Haiti provokes, this abiding love of a country not my own, from which I am permanently, if reluctantly, in exile, but which I believe is a microcosm of the larger world, suggesting that context, the stuff of life, is what counts.