Haiti’s allure: Magic, mystery

USA Today
December 7, 1994, Wednesday, International Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 9A
LENGTH: 762 words
DATELINE: PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti

Nightfall seizes Haiti and the drums of the musical group RAM start pounding out their “voodoo-rock” from the lobby of the famed Oloffson Hotel.

It’s Thursday night and that means it’s time for the weekly rite of gyration that allows U.S. spies, journalists, free-spirits, on-the-run criminals and relief workers to try their hand at enticing young Haitian prostitutes of both sexes.

The Oloffson was the centerpiece of Graham Greene’s classic novel about Haiti, The Comedians, and still looks like the Charles Addams house Greene described with its towers, balconies and creaky floors – only more tattered now.

While alligators no longer lurk in the swimming pool, the mahogany bar made from pool tables left by the Marines that occupied Haiti in 1915 remains. And presiding over the scene, is Aubelin Jolicouer.

Almost 30 years since Graham Greene portrayed him as the gossipy, giggling journalist Petit Pierre, Jolicouer still knows a good rum punch, a good coup and an awful lot about why Haiti casts it spell over so many people.

“If there is trouble, we take care of the people attracted to the country by trouble. If there is peace, we’re going to have tourists,” says Jolicouer, 70. “We are ready either way.”

Jolicouer – his linen suits neatly pressed, ascot in place and gold-tipped walking stick firmly in hand – claims his birth in a cemetery is why he understand Haiti’s draw.

There may be other reasons. Many, gripped by Haiti’s magic, leave old lives, loves and liabilities to find a second chance in this land of human tragedy. “For some people – just some people – Haiti has an envoutement,” says Louison Balthazar, who with her husband runs the popular restaurant Chez Gerard.

Envoutement roughly translates from Creole as “under the spell’,” the only reason she says many who come to visit stay, why a country full of illogical realities also can be so enchanting.

It’s a country where sidewalks and bathrooms are considered unnecessary luxuries, where guns are routinely found buried in caskets.

Here is where the La Belle Quebec hotel still operates sex tours for aging French-Canadian rouex, who apparently believe AIDS has no affect on men over 70.

It’s where Dominican prostitutes working in places called “Your Dream Disco” change their names to “Michele” and “Dominique” believing that will lure U.S. soldiers.

“There is something particularly Roman in the air of Haiti, Roman in its cruelty, in its corruption, in its heroism,” Greene wrote as the forward to the book Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes.

The author, Bernard Diederich, still lives here and agrees. “I stepped off the boat on the way to the Pacific in 1949 and just stayed,” Diederich, then a fledging reporter, says. “It was full of magic, and there was a good story here.” Now, he – like Jolicouer – has become one of Haiti’s real-life characters, sought out by fledging journalists and seekers of lore.

“You still feel the magic in the people,” Diederich explains.

“Every now and again you feel it tugging.”

What else, natives ask, could explain why news photographers – anxious to get their film back to the USA – had to be continually scolded by military spokesman Col. Barry Willey not to “attempt to flag down moving aircraft”?

Such incongruities and sometimes-bizarre events are known as “Haiti moments.” It starts right after one arrives. For example, everything for sale is priced in the “Haitian dollar.” No such currency exists – or ever has.

Instead the currency is called the gourde, usually scraps of paper so worn and dirty that foreigners and Haitians alike detest them for their ability to smell up an entire set of clothes.

“I don’t know sometimes what it does to me, but I knew I had to stay,” says Jurgen Shultz, 38, who owns the Blackout Bar, Grill and Pool Place. Shultz, a police officer in Germany, came to Haiti to head security at the German Embassy. When the embassy closed in 1993, he opted to stay and buy the bar instead of returning to cold Germany, and his Bavarian wife and children.

He loves Haiti – and he also loves Michelle, the 23-year-old Haitian dynamo who brings order to the restaurant and his life. Thus comes another Haiti moment: Michelle, now a locally renowned cook of German food, gets her receipes from Shultz’s mother in Germany.

All this continues despite dictators, the seemingly every-other-year coup, poverty, disease and uncertainty that seems beyond rescue.

“Upheaval in Haiti is just part of the life of the nation,” Jolicouer says. “It doesn’t mean we have to go around with a gloomy face.”