Once you have been to Haiti, the people there say, you will eventually return. I never did. But I go back there in my mind sometimes, especially when Haiti is in the news, as it is now. I had my first foreign adventure there, and I still have the fondest memories of its fragile yet resourceful people.
Tuesday’s earthquake left the presidential palace in ruins and the president himself without a sure place to sleep. I rolled past that palace one weird night nearly 27 years ago in a Russian car pushed by a team of beggars. They had surrounded the rented Lada in front of my hotel as soon as they noticed I couldn’t start it. Not one of them probably had ever driven a car, but they knew how to push one with a dead battery, and soon we were coasting along the broad street right past Baby Doc’s heavily guarded palace as fast as they could run and push.
Hertz had given me the Lada and Johnny. “I Johnny, good guide,” the boy said, following me to the car in the airport parking lot. Until that day, I had never been out of the United States — had rarely left the South, in fact — and suddenly I was at the wheel of this strange Russian car with Johnny Good Guide at my side headed straight into the chaos of Port-au-Prince traffic, buffeted by passing Tap-Taps, the colorful trucks that served as public transit.
I learned quickly that “I Johnny, good guide” was pretty much the extent of my guide’s English. I wasn’t really looking for another guide when I walked outside my hotel into the crowd of beggars that first afternoon. Abruptly, the crowd parted and a burly young man walked up to me, stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Tony. I speak good English.” From that point on, Tony was my guide and protector.
He led me to wonderful art galleries, showed me the fun bars where the locals partied, and took me to see the Voodoo Lady — none of which was why I was in Haiti.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had sent me there on an AIDS story. This was in the early, mysterious days of AIDs when researchers thought there might be something about being Haitian that caused AIDS, since Haitians were getting the disease in much higher numbers than the rest of the Western world. At that time, in fact, the disease was known informally as 4-H, for its most common victims: Homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs — and Haitians.
As it turned out, the Haitian outbreak of AIDS was traced to Africa, where some Haitian security workers had gone for a training seminar. But, by then, Haiti’s fragile economy had suffered another devastating blow. The few tourists who had ventured there quit coming.
Mick Jagger and Cher were among the famous guests who once stayed at the gingerbread Hotel Oloffson, made famous as Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. It was practically empty when I stopped by one afternoon.
It was not as splendid, in my opinion, as the Splendid. The headmistress at the American School, whose name, sadly, escapes me, took me there one evening. She had helped me set up an interview with Haiti’s health minister, and she wanted me to meet a German fellow who had observed Haiti’s politics and culture for many years, and who happened to own the Splendid.
It was a huge Victorian structure on a hillside. We sat on the veranda sipping Bloody Marys as two young women in the lobby played beautiful music on violins. The most pleasant breeze I think I’ve ever felt floated over us and carried the music out into the trees. For those few moments, Haiti was, for me, the island paradise it never really got a chance to be.
Earlier, the headmistress had taken me to a bar in Petionville, the upper crust mountain suburb above Port-au-Prince. I have two distinct memories of that bar, one good, one unsettling. When I ordered a rum and Coke, the waiter brought me a whole bottle of Barbancourt (the best rum in the world, by the way). When I asked why so many guys in the bar were wearing blue leisure suits, my host informed me they were TonTon Macoute, members of the goon squad created by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and continued in a gentler form by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. They seemed pleasant enough when they were drunk.
Below Petionville and the Splendid was the tragic reality of Haiti aptly described for our readers by Mike Williams in The Saddest Place Just Got Sadder: Desperate poverty, filth, disease and hunger, people living in the kind of cinderblock stalls we reserve for cattle and swine.
The Voodoo Lady lived in such a place. Tony took me there one afternoon to get my fortune told. First, I had to buy her a bottle of rum. I thought she just wanted to get drunk, but she spit most of it into the fire of a candle for a scary blowtorch effect. She correctly identified the fact that I have a bad back and mumbled some other stuff in Creole. The most curious thing I noticed was that she had four TV sets placed against a wooden pole in the middle of her stall, but no apparent electricity.
She wanted me to come back the next day with a few hundred bucks so she could make the rest of my life good for me. I told her I’d think about it. At the car, I told Tony I had no intention of coming back with that kind of money. It was one of only two times I saw Tony look scared. You cannot lie to the Voodoo Lady, he told me, and I could tell he was kind of serious. Apparently, he had faced this problem before. For a mere $40, he said, the Voodoo Lady might agree not to put a curse on me. I gave him the money, and he took it to her. It had been a marvelous show, after all.
The other time Tony looked scared was after we stopped to buy moonshine. It was Tony’s idea. He got out of the car and chatted with a guy outside a house. Suddenly, he came running to the car and shouted, “Go!” I went, as fast as the Lada would go. Tony’s hand was bleeding. There had been an argument, Tony explained. The moonshine man wanted my car. Tony said no. The moonshine man bit him. We had some leftover rum, which Tony poured on his injured hand as we rolled.
In many ways Tony embodied the paradox of Haiti: Street tough, resilient, yet surprisingly smart and talented.
At a bar one night, Tony was chatting with me in English, then switched to his native Creole when a waiter walked up. Then, he began speaking fluent German with a tourist at a nearby table and switched to fluent Spanish when we were joined at our table by a lovely Dominican hooker.
He took me to galleries that had some of the finest paintings I have seen anywhere. I still have a painting that is a fascinating combination of folk art and surrealism that I bought for $93. However, I think it may have been Johnny, before I disemployed him, who took me to a stash of amazing folk art in a back room of the Holiday Inn where I stayed. I bought one that remains a favorite for $6. I wish I could have afforded to buy all of them.
When I was at the Splendid hotel, I remember admiring an intricate gate near the lobby. I asked the German owner if he had imported it. No, he said, it was made by locals — out of beer cans.
Since my brief visit to Haiti in September of 1983, much awful has happened in the nation founded by slaves. There have been revolutions and coups and civil war and a few bad hurricanes that left bodies in the streets. And now this dreadful earthquake.
I wonder sometimes whatever happened to Tony and Johnny Good Guide.
Maybe I will return one day.