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Tom Chesshyre visits the world's first freed-slave nation to discover a country once more seeking its freedom
Tom Chesshyre | Issue 70 | 70 march 2005
In The Comedians, Graham Greene’s novel about the dark days of Haiti’s Tontons Macoutes and Papa Doc, his narrator, Mr Brown, invites a friend to dinner at his hotel to meet Mr and Mrs Smith, evangelical vegetarians from the United States: ‘Come to dinner on Saturday... and meet the only tourists here.’
Last September, staying at Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince (on which Greene based the Hotel Trianon in his 1965 bestseller), photographer Doug McKinlay and myself were, by all accounts, in the same, quite surreal, position as the Smiths. We may not have been evangelical vegetarians – the fried chicken and lambi a la criolla (conch in spicy creole sauce) were just too good to be preaching against meat – but we were almost certainly the only tourists.
“You’re tourists!” exclaimed a Canadian documentary film-maker researching a series on vodou, who joined us on the Oloffson’s gingerbread veranda on our first night, clutching a rum punch à la Joseph, Mr Browns’ limping barman (his limp post-dating a visit from the Macoutes).
“Hey, these guys are tourists!” he called out to his crew, who stared as though we were circus freaks. “We never thought we’d see any tourists!”
It felt, as you might expect, extremely odd. What was going on? Here we were on a sun-soaked Caribbean island, 150km from bustling resorts in the Dominican Republic, and just over 325km from good times in Jamaica, but it was as though the outside world had been barred.
The answer was floods, coups and a party that never happened. As Haiti ‘celebrated’ its 200th anniversary of sending the French packing and becoming the world’s first freed-slave nation last year, floods were claiming hundreds of lives in Gonaïves, a trading port in the north-west of the country, where latest reports on the Oloffson’s internet were of mass burials and food riots, with ‘survivors drinking and cooking with water from ditches containing rotting bodies and raw sewage’.
And there we were with our rum punches, lambi and bottles of Prestige beer – guiltily building up a tab. The ceiling fans whirred, the cicadas screeched and the sun set in a blaze of orange through the tropical creepers and trees down the hill towards the Presidential Palace.
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