Haiti seems almost beautiful from the air. Hillsides eroding into the Caribbean like a rained-on sandcastle. Up close I struggle to find redemption. There are cheap rum tots and poor citizens warming up for carnival, but no hope. I want to find black pride in this, once the richest nation in the Antilles. Here slaves defeated Napoleon’s armies and had Wordsworth poems written about them.
But today, with Obamarama on the TV, Haiti is a theme park for the Apocalypse. The population is lounging about in hot pants and slippers as if they’d just got out of bed. Pigs gorge on mountains of rubbish. The roads are bone-jarringly awful and the next hurricane is around the corner. United Nations bureaucrats by the pool in Port-au-Prince complain about their per diem levels while the crisis dollars flow in. Where once Papa Doc’s Tonton Macoutes murdered people in the streets, cocaine traffickers last week made a local police chief drink sulphuric acid because he got in the way. Haiti is so relentlessly depressing that it tires you out. Haiti makes Burundi resemble a holiday destination. ‘I’m cream crackered, mate,’ says my TV producer Alex Nott.
‘Never trust a Haitian,’ a UN apparatchik confided. ‘They are great poisoners. Wash after you shake a Haitian’s hand.’ Then he winked and whispered, ‘Voodoo.’ I tried to detect a note of irony in his voice but he was deadly serious. They say you make a person into a zombie by blowing powder from the liver of the puffer fish into the eyes, followed by doses of the hallucinogenic Datura plant. But there are all sorts of zombies in the UN Peacekeeping Department who have never ingested puffer fish.
Voodoo — or Vodou — is probably less satanic than the IMF or democracy. I met a mulatto houngan, or priest, who said, ‘Vodou is not a religion but a way of life. The loas [spirits] are there to help me. I don’t see them but they are around me always. Haiti is in a mess because we turned our backs on Vodou in 1806. It liberated us from slavery, but instead we embraced the Vatican.’ Makes sense to me. Haitian women have nine kids each and still the Pope disallows birth control.
We found the Duc de Bocozelle down a fetid alleyway in Saint Marc, near a derelict factory that once rendered fat from pig meat. ‘I was expecting you,’ said the Duke. ‘I saw you in a dream.’ He was a Bourbon aristocrat fallen on hard times, with two teeth, long greasy hair and soiled combat trousers. ‘I shall hate you if you do not dine with me. I have prepared three guinea fowl I shot myself for dinner and I have a case of wine.’ Pye-dogs worked through the piles of rubbish on the beach outside his hurricane-damaged hovel. Conversation quickly turned to the national problems, as it always does in Haiti.
‘There are no answers in Haiti,’ the Duke opined. ‘Nobody cares for morality, ethics or honesty. Only money. Here people think you are intelligent if you steal, and defending your rights if you lie. The only thing that will change people is an atomic holocaust.’ The Duke spoke English like Bob Marley impersonating Inspector Clouseau. He was among the most engaging raconteurs I have met. He said humans were created when gods made love to the daughters of men. To this day the perpetual struggle within us is between the beasts we once were and the improved breeding of our randy, deity ancestors. ‘Do you think Virgil is fiction? It is FACT!’ And when we left the Duke said, ‘You will visit again. I dreamed of that also.’
Another houngan owns the hotel Oloffson, where we are staying in Port-au-Prince (pronounced in Creole ‘PawohPwanz’). Richard Morse, the witchdoctor proprietor, advises me at supper to relate my dreams to him at breakfast for interpretation. ‘They’re all nightmares,’ I say. ‘I know what they mean already.’
Graham Greene stayed at the Oloffson and it inspired his rather slapdash novel The Comedians. It’s a gothic gingerbread house that is haunted by foreign correspondents who drank themselves to death on rum punch. ‘You expected a witch to open the door to you,’ Greene wrote, ‘or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from a chandelier behind him.’ Morse has named his rooms after famous guests who visited before Haiti got flushed away. I wanted the Greene or the Mick Jagger suite. Instead I was put in the Jean-Claude van Damme room. There really is no hope. As Alex often says, ‘I’m crispy ducked, mate.’
Haitian ground-level is so despairing you find yourself always grabbing another MOVCON UN chopper flight to any other place on the schedule. At altitude you breathe easy. But the second the rotor blades cease turning you are back in a dormitory state breeding tomorrow’s Manhattan taxi drivers. So switch your cell phones off and enjoy the ride. This is Haiti, dig it: the permanent emergency.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.