Shadows of Graham Greene in Downtown Port-au-Prince: Including Rum Sours at the Hotel Oloffson

One place I very much wanted to visit in Haiti was the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. Haiti no longer sees many tourists, but back in the day it rivaled Cuba as a Caribbean playground. The Hotel Oloffson, dubbed the “Greenwich Village of the Tropics”, saw all kinds of famous visitors, many of an artistic bent. In particular, Graham Greene was a regular at the hotel. The Comedians, Greene’s novel about Duvalier’s Haiti, immortalized the Oloffson as the fictional Hotel Trianon. I dropped by the Hotel Oloffson while taking a look around downtown Port-au-Prince. Port-au-Prince is not a nice city, so the Oloffson was a pleasant retreat in which to while away part of the afternoon.

bhpop0002_3.jpg

From my guesthouse on Route Delmas I took a tap-tap down the hill to Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines. A tap-tap is a shared bus built by taking a truck, fitting seats along the side walls, and then brightly painting the thing. Simple religious slogans along the lines of ‘Jesus is my Driver’ are the most common decoration, though some are adorned with detailed scenes from the Bible, or even (and I guess no less strangely) from blockbuster movies like Jurassic Park. The name tap-tap supposedly comes from the fact that you tap the metal side panels of the truck with a coin to let the driver know when you want to get off. At Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines I changed to another tap-tap heading south, getting off at Rue Pavee. The atmosphere on the street was a little different to Cap-Haitien. Nobody was too surprised to see a white foreigner. People left me alone.

bhpop0004_2.jpg

Route Delmas, linking downtown Port-au-Prince with the (supposedly) exclusive suburb of Petionville, is a fairly nice road. Although a little potholed, it is nice and wide, and lined by reasonable looking houses, battered but functional commercial complexes, and so on. On Blvd Jean-Jacques Dessalines things deteriorated significantly. The road narrowed, everything became indescribably filthy, the number of people increased enormously, and in places traffic slowed to a crawl as it negotiated the throngs of pedestrians. The scene was one of lively squalor, spiked with a little desperation, and I was happy to be driving through it all rather than walking. The less crowded stretches of road provided no relief, the thinning crowds just making it easier to see how dilapidated the buildings were, and how the refuse in the street included objects like dead dogs, piles of rotting food, shit, and discarded water bags. Haitian street vendors sell water in little plastic bags, and the discarded bags fill the streets, eventually becoming coated with oily black slime and forming a slippery carpet.

bhpop0002.jpg

At Rue Pavee I began to walk, heading east towards the area containing the central square, Cathedral du Notre Dame, museum, art gallery, and so on. The atmosphere was rough, but most people were occupied going about their business. There seemed to be fewer people loitering aimlessly than in Cap-Haitien. The shops, such as they were, were interesting. Many businesses took the form of simple roadside stalls, selling everything from schoolbooks to wine. It was a little bit like a permanent night-market, though there was not much street food on offer.  Haiti definitely suffers from a lack of places to eat out.

First I dropped by the Cathedral du Notre Dame, which proved to be an odd experience. A small crowd was gathered in the street outside the cathedral. The crowd was worshiping enthusiastically, led by a charismatic preacher. The cathedral was bolted shut, with the gates to the outside courtyard also locked, and so their prayers were directed at the locked gate. Around the perimeter of the cathedral were a sprinkling of people besides this main crowd, kneeling facing the locked cathedral and silently praying. I found an unlocked side entrance and walked in, expecting to be turned back. Strangely, since I was a tourist and there to poke around rather than worship I seemed to be welcome. It was odd. What is the point of a cathedral that locks its doors to the devout? Or perhaps it was precisely their enthusiasm that made the worshipers outside unwelcome? They did seem to be praying like members of some charismatic church rather than Catholics.

bhpop0001.jpg

Nearby the Cathedral were some dilapidated buildings that looked like they would have once been very luxurious but were now home to squatters.

bhpop0003.jpg

From the Cathedral I headed to the central square. There I checked out the statue of a slave blowing a conch to launch the rebellion against the French, the Presidential Palace, and the National Museum. The statue was probably the best of the three, being nicely designed and appropriately symbolic.

bhpop0004.jpg

The Presidential Palace was the usual thing, a sort of White House clone. Of course you could not go inside or get anywhere near. The National Museum contained very little, and since the display was in French I could not really read it. The museum comprised a single semi-circular hall, and I guess at least the building was architecturally interesting. There was a small display on slavery, with some manacles and other implements, then a display on the war of liberation from France, with a couple of items such as swords of famous commanders and so on, and finally chronologies of Haitian presidents and of the changes in the Haitian flag. I like museums but this one was rather missable. Being able to read French would help, but even then it would be a half-hour-and-you’re-done type of museum. The most interesting thing about the place was running into another tourist, a Belgian guy with an overseas-Haitian girlfriend. We had a little chat about tourist stuff and it turned out that their car had been jacked the previous week while they were out driving at night. Meet fellow tourists who have become crime statistics in a dull museum – hardly an advertisement for Haiti is it?

bhpop0005.jpg

I wandered across to the other side of the square to see the art gallery. On my way across the square some guys got in my face and hassled me for cash. I pretended not to speak English, ignored them, and reached the art gallery without incident. The Lonely Planet guidebook (I downloaded the Haiti chapter of their Caribbean guide) gave the gallery a glowing review but I found it disappointing. I think I was expecting colorful naive art of the sort that decorates the Barbancourt 15 year old rum box. Alas there was nothing of that sort to be found. The gallery was very small, little more than a room, and mostly contained odd pictures of people and funerals incorporating the occasional voodoo motif. With no background knowledge it was difficult to appreciate, and the sparse French explanations were of no use to me. If you knew the artists and understood the voodoo symbolism perhaps it would be more interesting, but I found no reason to linger.

bhpop0001_1.jpg

Leaving the gallery, I went into a little supermarket to browse the shelves. The supermarket was better stocked than anything in Cap-Haitien. The selection of spirits was interesting in that they had a couple of Lebanese arracks, presumably to cater to Haiti’s (supposedly) significant Syrian community. Coming out of the supermarket I ran into more hassles from young local guys. This group decided I wanted to part with some of my possessions and half a dozen of them aggressively pressed around me making demands. “Do you want to give us something? Your shoes! Give us your shoes man!” I once again pretended not to speak English and walked away without incident. The scene was made all the more pathetic by the miserable state of my shoes. I had deliberately gone out wearing a very scruffy old pair of running shoes from an unknown Chinese manufacturer, shoes I had got for free after participating in a half-marathon in Shanghai.

bhpop0001_6.jpg

Endless demands for your possessions can be one of the most tiresome aspects of Haiti.  Two particularly bad examples follow:

Early one evening I was taking photos from the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse in Port-au-Prince when a group of young guys from the house across the road waved at me to come down. I had no idea what they wanted but they seemed friendly enough, and if they turned out to be unfriendly I figured I had the pair of shotgun wielding guards from my guesthouse providing cover.  I climbed down from the terrace and popped across the road to say hello.  The greeted me cheerfully, ignored me for a moment as they consulted amongst themselves, then demanded my camera.  Efforts to be friendly to the locals suddenly seemed scarcely worth the bother.  Unlike the guys outside the supermarket this group were not threatening, it was simply that their interest in me did not extend beyond attempting to acquire my possessions. These were guys living in a nice house in a reasonable area too.  I made an excuse and went back to the guesthouse.

bhpop0005_1.jpg

The most irritating example of this behavior occurred at the airport when I was trying to leave.  As I arrived at the terminal one of the security guys wrestled my bag from me as I was lifting it out of the back of the truck, scrapping my hand against the truck edge.  The cut was only superficial, but somehow it began dripping blood all over the airport floor.  The guy who had cut my hand open with his unrequested help then asked for a tip, calling his friends over for support when I told him to get lost.  After getting rid of the security guys and finding my check-in queue I laid my luggage on the floor and opened it up, digging around for a plaster and some rum to stop the bleeding and clean the wound.  As I did this a miniature mob of airport porters and other assorted vagrants clustered round hopefully inquiring about which of my possessions I had decided to part with.  Hassling tourists for their gear as they clean up their  bleeding hand on an airport floor is not a good look.

bhpop0002_1.jpg

But returning to downtown Port-au-Prince, while the place had a unique atmosphere and was interesting to stroll around, the sights had essentially been crap.  It was time to head to the Hotel Oloffson. From the square I walked south along Rue Capois, into the area where Port-au-Prince’s famous ‘gingerbread’ style houses can be found. One or two reasonable specimens of ‘gingerbread houses’ were on my route, and if you know exactly where to go there are no doubt a few better ones around. The houses were worth a look I guess, but only for a minute or two.

bhpop0004_3.jpg

I got to the Hotel Oloffson around lunchtime. There was a light sprinkling of people on the verandah, most of them looking like NGO workers. I took a seat at the bar, which I had entirely to myself.

bhpop0001_3.jpg

The evening might have been a more atmospheric time to visit, but daylight was better for appreciating the architecture of the building and surrounding gardens. Port-au-Prince is also sketchy enough that you should really avoid being out at night, and if you do go out you need to hire a car and driver to get around. There seem to be no regular taxis in the city and the tap-taps stop running after dark. The gardens of the hotel were filled with voodoo statues, some reminiscent of the Barbancourt logo.

bhpop0001_4.jpg

I asked for a Ti-punch and got a rum sour. It was nicely made though, and Barbancourt 5 Star was the house mixing rum. I asked the barman if there was any difference between the drink he had just made and the rum sour listed in the menu. He said there was, so next I tried the Hotel Oloffson rum sour which turned out to be excellent. The standard way of making rum sours in Haiti seems to be to shake Barbancourt, freshly squeezed lime juice and sugar over ice, then serve, either strained or on ice, in a rocks glass with a sugared rim. The Hotel Oloffson rum sour differed in that a capfull or so of sweet vermouth went into the shaker. This may be a standard rum sour variation, but I don’t recall coming across it before. I guess the Floridita Daiquiri (with its sweet vermouth and créme de cacao) is a similar idea. In any case, the sweet vermouth really worked. The herbal flavors added complexity to the standard rum sour recipe, and the wineyness complemented the Barbancourt nicely. Barbancourt is a tricky rum to mix with but it suited this drink.

bhpop0001_2.jpg

The bar served some nice food too. I had some kind of French style fish and tomato dish with beans and rice. The portion was smallish but the quality was great.

bhpop0003_1.jpg

The lunch crowd disappeared and the bar staff began preparing for the evening. I was surprised to see them squeezing their own passion fruit juice, as well as making fruit purees from Spanish lime (kenep) and something the barmaid called ‘Haitian cherry’ (to me it looked and tasted like a haw). With jugs of freshly squeezed passion fruit juice right in front of me I had to try a Barbancourt 5 Star with passion fruit juice. It was pretty good, although the intensely flavored juice overpowered the rum a little.

bhpop0004_1.jpg

After finishing in the bar I took a leisurely wander around the hotel, swimming pool, and garden. The door of each room had a sign on it, indicating the names of famous persons who had, presumably, stayed in that room at some time. Given that every single room had signs listing precisely two famous persons I had to wonder a little about the accuracy. No doubt these people all stayed at the hotel, but perhaps not in the rooms to which their names are attached. I never saw inside any of the rooms.

bhpop0003_3.jpg

The hotel itself was falling apart a little. From a distance it remained an impressive ‘gingerbread’ style house, but up close you could find plenty of missing railings, window panes, and so on. There had also been recent renovations on certain guestrooms using cheap joinery that did not match the original. The windows were no doubt better sealed than before, but aesthetically it was disappointing. However, overall the hotel remains hugely atmospheric, and happily also has a great bar.

bhpop0005_2.jpg

I headed back to my guesthouse before it got too late, wandering back across the square and towards Blvd Jean-Jacques Dessalines. On my way back up Blvd Jean-Jacques Dessalines I dropped by the Marche de Fer, Port-au-Prince’s traditional old market. There was more merchandise on offer than I had seen up in Cap-Haitien. The vibe was less friendly though. A group of young guys wanted to know what I was doing in the market if I was not buying anything. Was I just here to look? They felt looking around was offensive and I should probably leave. Various Haitians had previously told me that they disliked foreigners coming to Haiti ‘just to look’. For as long as that attitude lasts I guess Haiti will see few tourists.

bhpop0003_4.jpg

I got slightly annoyed with this particular bunch of guys and showed them a bottle of Barbancourt 15 year old rum that I had bought earlier in the day, telling them I had just bought it (i.e. in the market). Their tone became more friendly, and we ended up having a bit of a laugh. But really, it doesn’t need to be this way. Why do many Haitians walk around being unpleasant to visitors for no good reason?

After saying good bye to the welcoming market guys I made it back to my hotel without incident, thus ending my visit to downtown Port-au-Prince.  Unique as the place was I did not really think it merited a second look.

bhpop0001_7.jpg

12 Responses to “Shadows of Graham Greene in Downtown Port-au-Prince: Including Rum Sours at the Hotel Oloffson”

  1. Alexx Says:

    Can u tell me something about the night life in POrt au Prince? Clubs, hookers, etc. I will be in Haiti in a few months and want to have some fun. Also tell me about their beaches, which ones are good? Could u also recommend a good guest house? How much is the room in Olafson?
    Merci.

  2. Dan Says:

    Excellent travel writing — I’d like to visit Haiti some day and this was especially helpful and detail-driven. thanks.

  3. Mike S. Says:

    Thanks for the Hotel Oloffson Rum Sour recipe; that’s what I was waiting for!

    Cheers,

    Mike

  4. Feheart Says:

    A nice blog for cocktail~
    Thank you for sharing…………..

    A cocktail beginner from Hong Kong

  5. Tiare Says:

    Very interesting reading as usual, and that rum sour..what a luck i have the ingredients at hand! will try it tonight.

    T

  6. John Says:

    What a wonderful blog. Can’t wait to read more

  7. Judy Says:

    You mention in your previous entry, and allude to it in this one as well, that you don’t understand why Haitians should be so averse to people taking their photos or coming “just to look.” I encourage you to try to empathize by putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine yourself living in filth and poverty, with barely a roof over your head and barely enough food to eat, unable to adequately care for yourself or your children. Would you want people to come and stare and point their camera at you – simply because they have a “tourist curiosity?” I suspect not. Haitians are not simply a 3rd world ‘curiosity’ for spectators. They are humans – with feelings and emotions and much to offer those who are willing to take the time to get to know them. (And yes, I have been there. And yes, I am going back!) I wish you well (and empathy) on your travels.
    Respectfully –
    judy

  8. seamus Says:

    Judy, I don’t especially appreciate your sanctimonious tone.

    I have been to poor places all over the world (Haiti, Bolivia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Guatemala, backwoods China). Compared to other poor places I found Haitians remarkably touchy. Their behavior often switched unexpectedly between extremes of hostility and friendliness. I have not found touchiness and poverty to necessarily go hand in hand, so I believe this Haitian behavioral characteristic derives from more than simply poverty. Naturally observations such as mine, based on a single brief visit to the country, should be taken with a grain of salt.

    I am not big on staring and pointing my camera at people. You will notice my photographs include few people. I tend to just wander around minding my own business. Admittedly I do ‘look’, but not much beyond what is necessary for purposes of navigation.

    I would have loved to get to know more Haitians while I was there. Unfortunately being unable to speak French I was limited in my ability to converse with people.

    Haiti has plenty of potential as a tourism destination. Unfortunately, attracting more tourists may require Haitians to get over their hostility towards people who come ‘just to look’, since ‘looking’ is more or less what tourists do.

    In an ideal world I guess Haiti would be better off developing industries other than tourism. High-tech or something would be great. But being realistic, the tourist industry offers an easy way to help a lot of Haitians improve their lives.

    I did not really need to be told that Haitians are humans. You are lecturing me on ‘empathy’. Why such a lack of empathy for me? Do you honestly believe I see Haitians as non-humans put on this earth to entertain the occasional tourist? No? Then don’t be so cute.

  9. marc Says:

    I applaud for visiting Haiti, However as since you are indeed open minded and into artistic and relax paces here are some spots.
    I wish you visited other galleries like Monnin Gallery or Wednesday night Petionville LCub for dancing, Hotel Montan high end hotel.

    Jeremie Haiti http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqeZ4ITp7AY

    Port Salut for bohemians,backpacker type.

    Visit jacmel for arts and crafts, metal works google it

    Quartier Latin restaurant Haiti
    http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g1098353-d1372024-r14428108-Quartier_Latin-Petionville_Haiti.html

    http://www.abakabay.com/

    Mr Grill Steakhouse 39, rue Rigaud, Petion Ville, Haiti.

    jacmel
    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g580451-d629121-Reviews-Hotel_Cyvadier-Jacmel_Haiti.html

    Ibo-Le-Le hotel, hotel Oluffson that the writer of this blog is nice, Hotel caribe nice business hotel, http://www.villacreole.com nice hotel

    Club l’Infini up in Kenscoff laid back casual attire night club mostly upperclass haitians, and foreigners there .

    Presse Café live band relax atmosphere.
    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Tourism-g147306-Haiti-Vacations.html
    28 rue Rigaud, Pétion Ville

    photos hotels haiti
    http://www.haitixchange.com/index.php/forums/viewthread/1601/P24/#23610

    this chalet style hotel is far way in kenscoff you need driver good jeep worth the trip secluded. montcelhaiti is the name of the chalet up the mountains cool air

    Hope all including the writer of this blog can visit haiti again their are pockets of beauty some hidden just got to find them. thank you.I hope some of this list will be of some help.

    music to buy
    Tabou Combou
    Belo- his style is folk , reggae , combo haitian roots
    Sweet Micky- konpa, he is comical, great to listen to dance
    Azor- RARA roots band tourists love rara sound very organic
    Emeline Michel- queen of Creole song has mixture of jazz in her production, nice voice

    http://www.sobs.com world music and Fridays is french carribean night mostly haitian band in downtown nyc
    http://www.haitianjazzfestival.com/
    you can google them

  10. marc Says:

    http://www.montcelhaiti.com

  11. Pedrinho Says:

    Please, anyone with information about the situation of Oloffson and the Montana Hotels on the aftermath earthquake. Poor Ayiti and its people.

  12. Robert Says:

    I was in Cap Haitien and Ouanaminthe last week. I found the people very nice and welcoming. I am not discounting any of the problems anyone else may have or the terrible crimes I have heard about- just saying that I had a safe and upbeat trip. A few street kids followed me in a good natured way and asked for a coin, but I was generally left alone and safe even at night. I enjoyed the Iron Market in Cap Haitien, I’m told the one in Port Au Prince is not used due to the earthquake- although the minarets are still standing. The Roi Christophe is a good, in town hotel but it isn’t cheap. Caribe Tours (the Dominican deluxe bus company) runs a bus every noon from Santiago (no reservations needed) and they handle all border hassles. I didn’t even have to get off the bus. The Oloffson is still operational in PAP but they have doubled the prices.

Leave a Reply