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