Sunday, April 7, 2013

Voodou and the Hotel Olaffson

It's the site of the famous movie The Comedians, based on Graham Greene's famous book. I am not prepared for it. Who could be, after Port-au-Prince? Yet the Great Glass Elevator has jolted sharply away from the ruins and tent cities and starving eyes and pulled up at a tall metal gate with another armed guard.

We pull in to the compound and wonder at the lushness of it. A circular driveway surrounds an enormous, round, outdoor bar, white columns holding up a rounded roof. Around the bar are gardens: banana trees, palms, tropical vines, shocking pink and red hibiscus starring the green. We arrive-- at a tall wooden building festooned in gingerbread. The wide steps lead to an outdoor dining room. Indoors is a kind of nightmarish paradise. One stone wall is covered in a red and blue vooduo dreamscape-- animals and people, eyes and lips separated by several feet. It is alluring and frightful.

Inside the restaurant is a place for Ernest Hemingway. Is he here, smoking a cigar and drinking some hair of the dog? You expect to round a corner and see him. The bar is backed by a gold-framed antique mirror. On either side of that are plaster busts of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, glaring down. Spooky. To the right is a tall curio, filled with stone Arawak and Taino artifacts. You feel her before you see her. She's right there, on top of the curio. She's guarding the past. A voodou doll, looking very much as if she's made of an authentic shrunked head, hideously watches. She is holding a baby, who she feeds a bottle of rum. Her eyes roll in wide directions. She sees everything. You want to get the hell out of there.

So you do. Back at the long table for all of us, the wait for our sandwiches takes what feels like hours. Up again. I wander the garden. There is a rectangular swimming pool, fed by a splashing fountain. The water is vaguely swimming-pool color, but suspiciously cloudy. It is lush but scary, like everything else at this place. I investigate the round covered bar and the gardens. Poulle!! Ti poulle!! Chickens and their babies wander all over Haiti. This seems reassuring and sweet. Until I notice the crosses on the trees. Voudoo crosses were borrowed from Christians, but they don't just symbolize Christ. They symbolize the intersection of the physical and the spiritual worlds. I want to appreciate without fear the animist religion of these people. It is intellectually interesting. I wonder if the garden I am exploring is used for voudou ceremonies. I wonder if I am treading, unwelcome, on sacred ground. I wonder if I'll be cursed. And then she is there-- a statue-- filled with spirit.

She's a naked woman, straddling a djambe. She is anatomically correct-- her vagina clearly enunciated. One enormous cement snake curls around her lower back, winding around her shoulder to kiss her ear. Another is wound around the djambe, and is nursing from the woman's breast. She doesn't seem to mind. I do. Holy shit.

Valerie, my honey bunny translator, just turned 19, comes to protect me. He always shows up somehow when I'm scared. He explains that the owner of this place is a voodou priest. Julienne and Valdano, one of our translators, wait by the car. Valerie tells me they refuse to come in because of the voodou. Is it fear or disdain that keeps them out? I don't like it.

Finally it is time to go. Some of us have been hitting the rum punch hard. I had three sips-- and put that stuff down. Oh Mother of All Things Holy-- they don't make rum like this in the United States. It's a cross between blood, acid, gasoline and something very, very good. Like Haiti itself. I think that voudoo statue's breasts must pour this stuff out when nobody's looking. We get back in the van and leave the glorious, sexual, sweltering, frightening, exciting voudoo palace behind.

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