No Reservations: Haiti

By Bryan Schaaf on Thursday, July 21, 2011.

I finally got around to watching the  No Reservations episode in which Anthony Bourdain travels to Port au Prince.  While it is a shame that he did not visit Haiti’s secondary cities or countryside, he and his team were able to capture some of the beauty, the tragedy, and the potential of Haiti.  He comes away understanding Haitians are trying their best to get their lives, communities, and country back on track.  You can catch the entire episode (in three parts) on Youtube.


Clip One: Clip one begins at the Hotel Oloffson, upon which the hotel in Graham Greene’s novel “The Comedians” is based.   In a sense, comedians still gather at Hotel Oloffson, all playing their roles – journalists, aid workers, politicians, and the occasional tourist.  When Peace Corps was active in Haiti, owner Richard Morris gave a discount to the volunteers, allowing us to stay in a much nicer place than we normally could.  Most of us have fond memories of RAM concerts and long nights of arguing politics and telling jokes on the veranda, rum punch in hand.  The hotel embraces Haitian art, music, and the vodoun that runs through it all.  Later in this clip, Bourdain is having lunch in a market and notices hungry children (of which there are many)  watching him.  He decided to buy them all a hot meal, which despite his good intentions, results in chaos.  According to Bourdain, “ What happens is both predictable and a metaphor for what's wrong with so much well-intentioned aid effort around the world. Hungry people anywhere behave like hungry people. When you've got big kids and small kids, young people and old, many of whom haven't had a meal in days, in the real world, outside of the commercial in our heads, people get whacked with a belt."  This clip also includes (continuing into clip two) excellent footage of Fete Guede – the Haitian Day of the Dead, traditionally a celebration of life and the impact that those who have come before have on it.  It is particularly poignant after the earthquake – especially for those who will never be sure the remains of their friends and family lie buried.


Clip Two: Clip two features an interview with Sean Penn.  I give Penn credit for making a transition from brash advocate with all the answers to quiet aid worker who understand the complexities.  Still, the majority of sites where internally displaced persons are staying do not have the luxury of an NGO managing it, let alone a celebrity who can function as the de facto mayor.  It would have been better for Bourdain to visit several of these sites to get a feel for how the displaced are living.  The second half of the clip features the work of artists who, despite the beauty of their work, will never see a dime from it.  After, he enjoys a meal in Petionville of fish in kreyol sauce, plantain, and griot (fried pork).  At this point, I realized I could not recall the last time I had a good Haitian meal.  This clip concludes with an observation that if Haiti’s political past was any guide, the (then) upcoming presidential elections were bound to be flawed.  Unfortunately, he was right.


Clip Three:  Uncertainty pervades clip three – will the incoming hurricane strike Port au Prince?  In the end, there is little most people can do to prepare.  Those in the camps have nowhere else to go.  Richard has nowhere but his hotel.  Nothing to do but wait, watch, and hope.  The next day there is a sense of celebration on the street – of having made it through another challenge.  Pito Nou Led Nou La, a proverb which means in Haitian "We may be ugly, but we’re still here."  In Haiti, one is aware of the fragility of life.  We are here today but may not be tomorrow -  but for now, we have made it through and that is cause for celebration.  The end of this clip is the best part of the entire episode – coverage of a rara band, intoxicated by the moment and with klerin, playing oddly hypnotic music as it moves down streets, always paying hommage to the crossroads.  Rara is a celebration of being alive.


What did you think of the episode? Please feel free to post your thoughts below.  Thanks. 










The Ghosts of Haiti's Hotel Oloffson (3/2/2012 )

Global Post
By Charles M. Sennott
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The wooden balcony of the Hotel Oloffson still creaks with a history that is as rich and relevant as ever. The hotel, with its faded but still-grand 'Ginger Bread' architecture, somehow managed to survive the earthquake with its twisting wooden staircase, its inviting porch and its ancient swimming pool all intact. Perched on the edge of a hill looking out over the mountains and the distant blue waters of the sea port, the Oloffson was a favorite haunt of Graham Greene. It was the muse for the fictional Hotel Trianon in his 1966 novel, The Comedians, a classic tale of treachery, good intentions, despair and the absurdity of Haiti set amid the rule of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The three main characters are Brown, the hotelier, Smith, the innocent American, and Jones, a confidence man, and it is my favorite Greene novel. I first read it at the urging of the Reuters correspondent turned New York tabloid editor John Cotter, who covered Haiti in the 1980s. The book was lovingly placed in Cotter’s casket when he died too young in 1992. Cotter had uncanny instincts for a good story and that’s why he loved Haiti. He was a wild man with a cackling laugh that I can almost hear echoing around somewhere near the bar in this old hotel where he often stayed. Ghosts are everywhere in Haiti. And so is history. More from GlobalPost: HDS Greenway's 'The War Hotels'
The Oloffson was built in the late 19th century as the private home of the Sam family. Guillaume Sam, who hailed from the wealthy family, was named president for a mere five months before he was torn to pieces by an angry mob, a fate that has befallen several Haitian rulers, including Dessalines, one of the founding fathers of its revolution. Haiti’s political history devours its leaders in blood and violence. And as political uncertainty creeps back from the shadows with the unsteady cadence of a disabling limp, Haiti’s recently elected President Michael Martelly should listen carefully to those approaching footsteps and study his history. In 1935, the Sam home was converted to a hotel by Walter Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain. At one point, the grand, sprawling structure was occupied as a military hospital by the United States when naval ships took its port during one of several American military interventions on the tiny and desperately poor nation whose proximity to the richest and most powerful nation in the world makes for embarrassing irony, and on some level perhaps an expression of guilt that America has never quite figured out how to resolve. During the 1950s and 60s, the hotel was frequented by Charles Adams and Graham Greene and many artists and writers. In the 1970s and 80s, it became a playground for celebrities, including Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis. The suites of the hotel are today named after all those of fame who have slept here.
As the death grip of Duvalierism closed in on Haiti and tourism virtually dried up in the 1980s, the hotel was taken over by Richard A. Morse. He lovingly restored it (although today it clearly needs more love and definitely more paint.) Through all of the violence and the tragedy and the hope of Haiti, on Thursday nights Morse’s own band RAM (his initials) has presided over their own unique, weekly celebration of Haiti’s traditional music and dance into which they infuse their own politics of dissent. And it is still a meeting ground for Haiti’s educated class, artists, foreign correspondents, diplomats, NGO workers and a cast of characters, well, straight out of Graham Greene. So not much has changed since Greene sat in a favorite corner of this creaking porch while observing this place, drawn in by the shadows, the shafts of light and the shades of gray that are Haiti. You can read the first part of the Ford Foundation-funded continuing series at “Fault Line: Aid, Politics and Blame in Post-Quake Haiti.”

"In Haiti, one is aware of

"In Haiti, one is aware of the fragility of life. We are here today but may not be tomorrow - but for now, we have made it through and that is cause for celebration".
This reminds me of a baby girl I meet on my last assignmant to Haiti in March. I have been there a number of times since the earthquake with a group of colleagues and we are collaborating with the staff in a little hospital in Saint Marc to build their surgical services department. I walked into the Post Anesthesia Recovery Room where I discovered a little permi baby girl that had been left by the nurses on a metal instrumment tray presumed to die shortly. She was gasping and mouthing like a fish removed from water, her little arms weakly moving with each breath. I grabbed a green surgical towel and wrapped it around her and then constructed a pixie hat from orthopedic tubular dressing and placed it on her head to avoid loosing additional heat from her body.
I took her over to her very ill mother and said to her "look what you did, she is beautiful". The Mom opened her eyes and said to me in English "My baby alive?". I congratulated her and asked her via an interpreter what will she name the baby, The young mother asked me to name her little daughter, so I asked her if she liked the name Patricia which she did; so I called after my mother who had recently passed. Patricia could not be breast fed since her mother was HIV+ and the hospital did not have baby formula, so we feed her glucose and water which we mixed ourselves and then took it in turns to swaddle her and carry her close to our bodies to keep her warm and stimulated. We did this while looking after the many other surgical patients. When I go back in September, I am sure I will never know what happened to Patricia accept that she will be tested for transmission in six months and if Mom had received her HIV meds. regularly, there will be a chance for Patricia to survive, only to battle the other challenges that Haitian kids endure including malnutrition. What I do know is that for now there is a little Haitian girl with an Irish name meaning of "Noble birth",

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