Hotel Oloffson: Hope and Lodging in Port-au-Prince (1/20/2010)

Speaker's Corner: The Oloffson is a magnet for intellectuals, writers and the criminally inclined.
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By Lisa Wixon
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I was at home when I heard the news that a 7.0 earthquake had struck Haiti. Horrified, I thought of my friends there, many made in travels to Port-au-Prince: aid workers; a driver and his family; the beautiful children in Cité Soleil, once deemed the worst slum in the Western hemisphere. I thought of my New York apartment building’s 70-year-old doorman who, after decades in the U.S. working and raising a family, just last year fulfilled a lifelong dream to retire to his native Port-au-Prince. (Sadly, he has yet to make contact.)
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I couldn’t help but also think of Port-au-Prince’s 115-year-old Grand Hotel Oloffson, the intellectual and artistic center of the city, wondering if it had survived. A few years ago, I sought out the Oloffson in search of a quiet space to think and write. When I arrived, I knew instantly I was home.
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The stately inn resides on a quiet street in downtown, just a few blocks from the presidential palace that was crushed by the quake. It seemed a sanctuary in a chaotic city. It was built in the French Victorian style for the ruling Sam family in the late 1800s. It was in dire need of repair but, as I sauntered into the lobby for the first time, it felt just right in its decrepit state.
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My designer friend would call its decor /ongepotchket/: you see Haitian Vodou art and doilies, sequined flags and ceramic chandeliers, dark bars and white wicker, whispers of Indonesia at the pool. It’s casa de Hansel and Gretel on LSD, an inspiration so alluring that New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams mimicked its gingerbread likeness in many of his drawings.
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The Haitians believe the aging monstrosity to be haunted, a curse that has saved many tenants and opinionated guests, both foreign and Haitian, from its darkest dictators and their henchmen who were reluctant to tangle with anyone holed up at the mansion. It’s no wonder. The hotel’s three stories, surrounded by banyans and palms, and built into a rock, cannot be fully seen at any vantage. It seems to partially disappear into nature or clouds at every angle.
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Upon my arrival, I was taken to the John Barrymore suite, with its enormous dark bed under a ceiling fan that had already made too many rotations. A tilting balcony overlooked the courtyard, and the bathroom sink and tub were rusted. Though my room had a small desk, I spent my time writing in the hotel’s lobby and veranda. I’d frequently encounter UN peacekeepers who’d parked their tanks and M-16s out front while on a coffee break, local Haitian intellectuals, and musicians practicing for the Thursday night social event of the city, featuring proprietor Richard A. Morse’s protest rock band, RAM.
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*ALSO SEE RELATED STORY ABOUT MORSE: ‘They Listen to Me When Things Are Bad’ *
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Smaller rooms in the lobby were often filled with writers and photographers hunkered over desks editing words and images. My own favorite corner was next to an iron abacus door opening onto a statue of the Yoruban sea goddess, Yemaja, in her pink princess gown. Another beloved spot was the patio café, paved in M.C. Escher tiles. It felt somehow noble to write under its Gothic spires as the Oloffson has long been a space where the well-meaning have attempted to report truths. Or fictions. Few novels set in Port-au-Prince in the past 60 years have not had some character skirr across the veranda of this mansion.
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As tempting as it was to stay put, I forced myself to investigate beyond its walls. Putting aside my fear of being kidnapped—a popular and lucrative crime in Haiti—I braved Port-au-Prince’s claustrophobic downtown and saw the plight of so many Haitians. I think of them now as I read reports of the destruction. And I think of the Oloffson, which made it possible for me to see Haiti. I’m not terribly brave. I could only go to Haiti knowing there was a safehouse that rooted my stay, a place where I could make sense, with others who spent their days like mine, of what was happening beyond the gates. But having visited many deeply impoverished places, I never felt at the Oloffson that my hotel was providing an imperial vantage. The hotel belongs to all of Haiti.
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Haitian chronicler Herbert Gold wrote that the Oloffson, named after a Swedish ship captain who first opened its doors to the public in 1935, is a “Catchall home for an international collection of ... drunks, criminals, the sexually obsessed, crazies, remittance folks, mistresses and gigolos and bemused adventure seekers. Over the years it would become my favorite place in the whole wide world.” That sentiment is shared by its celebrated guest, Graham Greene, arguably the 20th century’s most observant writer. When Greene moved in during Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s regime, he sat at its terrace to write “The Comedians,” and famously noted:
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“You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him ... I had grown to love the place.” As it had for Gold and Greene, it became one of my favorite places in the world.
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For a writer, spending mornings over a laptop, afternoons in a beautiful if heartbreaking city, and evenings on the terrace sharing a bottle of local rum, is perfect. It’s an ideal balance of the three necessities of a writer’s life: writing, observation, conversation. I rarely achieve all in one day; but always managed it at the Oloffson.
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I once told its proprietor this. He smiled knowingly.
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“The Oloffson,” said Morse, “is a writer’s hotel.”
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And it is a hotel that, thankfully, survived the earthquake. Since the disaster struck and journalists flooded in, it has been filled with writers from The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post. Perhaps there is some spirit that has kept it erect, or perhaps it is the science of engineering; the hotel is a wooden creation in a city of cement and stone. One day soon, I hope to return to its veranda, to a restored and rebuilt Port-au-Prince, and continue work under the spell of the labyrinthine ship. That it remains standing after such a scourge offers me hope, for myself, and for the people of Haiti.
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