Lost in Hotel Oloffson
After a nice, long visit at Artisan Business Network's showroom earlier this year, Regine and I made our way to Hotel Oloffson for a late lunch. Our trip to Haiti with the US Embassy was going well. Our days were full because of our jam-packed itinerary, but our hearts were fuller because of the meaningful interactions we've made. We needed some space and a little time to breathe and recollect our thoughts. So we let go of time that afternoon. It was indeed needed.
At the table, the calm air danced around the restaurant's patio. A large group of white American teenagers arrived in a van. The excitement in their voices echoed through the courtyard and bounced all over the walls. They rushed up the stairs, and I caught one of them pause to snap a photo. They were clearly excited for whatever adventure that was planned for them. A white couple sat beside us, and with a frustrated tone, the woman asked, "I noticed you speak Kreyol. Would you kindly ask our server what's taking so long? We've been waiting for our food for over an hour."
A cat brushed past Regine's ankles, and she froze. She's terrified of them I learned that day. I dug in my plate full of akra (malanga fritters) and banann peze (fried plaintains), and waved the server over for more pikliz (a condiment made of picked shredded cabbage and hot peppers that I can't live without.) I had a bottle of cold Prestige just within arm's reach.
We were greeted by an older gentleman with the warmest smile and the kindest eyes. He seemed to know Regine. They engaged in a friendly conversation, and my attention went back to my Haitian lunch. Regine whispered, "He's been working here for decades. For some reason, he always remembers me, and he always comes to say hello when he sees me." I thought a bit about it, and I understood completely why anyone would remember Regine. She spoke with confidence and kindness with everyone. Her gaze made the invisible visible, and her interactions gave a voice to the voiceless.
The older man's name was Andre Nord. He was surprised I wanted to photograph him. He stood in the walkway leading to the restaurant's terrace timidly. I stared at his eyes through my viewfinder. His glance sang of kindness and hope. His hands of hard work and strength. From the distance, I can hear a group of women singing to gospel music. Bells rang in the far distance, but each time I looked at Andre or the ceiling fans, everything stood still. They relaxed me. They took care of me.
I focused on the ceiling fans. They moved ever so slowly, rotating in perfect harmony. They hypnotized my gaze, and lifted me as high as the colonial-style wooden ceilings. An older woman strolled quietly through the restaurant. She wore a nightgown as white as her hair, and her steps were slow but firm. I watched her walk to a balcony over looking small houses, water and mountains. I nodded at her when we crossed paths and muttered a shy hello. She looked in the far distance, and I followed her gaze. My eyes landed on a kite moving to the rhythm of the Haitian sky. The older woman was a dreamer like me, I could tell. Later I learned she was the iconic singer/folklorist, Emerante de Pradines, mother of Richard A. Morse, the lead singer of RAM, and manager of the hotel.
When I was younger, I remember watching RAM on the television, and being captivated by their performances. Their song lyrics always made me curious. A lot of it was political, and it was forbidden to ask questions about politics in my household. Their visuals always showed a side of Haiti's raw, undenying beauty. There was also something about Lunise, Richard's wife and the band's second lead vocalist that pulled me into the screen. Her graceful dance moves and bewitching, sultry eyes always had a light of their own on our screen. I remember wondering how she managed to be so confident. So strong. I strolled the floor tiles where they perform most Thursday nights. I tried to imagine the energy flowing through the empty space when they're on stage. It lingers through. I could feel it. I could almost hear the music that afternoon.
IT'S a cliché to say that the Oloffson is the iconic hotel of the Caribbean and of Haiti. But it's been said so often for a reason. The rickety 19th-century building, immortalised by Graham Greene in his 1966 novel The Comedians under the fictional name The Trianon, is still open, and at the moment pretty full. It is also amazingly unchanged, given its location in a country that has seen so much turmoil and destruction...
The building was first put up by the Sam family, which has given two presidents to Haiti. During the 1915-34 American occupation of Haiti, the American army used it as a hospital, and their extension to the property is still called the “maternity wing”. It became a hotel in 1935 when Werner Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain, took over the lease. It then passed to Roger Coster, a French photographer, and again in 1960 to Al Seitz, an American. Under them the Oloffson enjoyed a golden era, when guests included Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sir John Gielgud.