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5486: Bell Travel Article, Washington Post111200 (fwd)

From: JPS390@aol.com


Top of the World

By Madison Smartt Bell
Sunday, November 12, 2000; Page E01 

Haiti is our next-door neighbor, surrounded by islands we visit with 
weekend regularity. But because of the political turmoil there, the 
island and its richly textured culture remain, in effect, terra 
incognita. And with a national election planned later this month, the 
uncertainty is only growing. We asked a novelist with an intimate 
understanding of Haiti to take us there. Madison Smartt Bell has just 
published "Master of the Crossroads" (Random House), the second in his 
planned trilogy of Haiti's 18th-century slave uprising. (The series' 
first book, "All Souls Rising," was a finalist for the National Book and 
PEN/Faulkner awards.) Bell wrote the following short story for The Post 
Travel section. 

It was the dry season in Cap Haitien, in all of Haiti for that matter, 
but in the evenings the wind came up powerfully over the harbor, rushing 
whitecaps against the breakwater that ran along the Boulevard de Mer 
backward toward the working docks of the port, and heavy clouds gathered 
over the smoke-blue mountains to the west; sometimes there was lightning 
over the mountains, a grumble of not too distant thunder, but it was all 
an arid, empty show. There was no rain. Dr. Oliver had come down out of 
those mountains a few days before, through Dondon in the pass of 
Montagnes Noires, from La Victoire, a tiny hamlet on the Central 
Plateau. It had been thoroughly dry there too, the parched grass 
browning all over the high savanna, whispering when the breeze ran over 
it. From Oliver's point of view it was better so, since the rains made 
the roads all but impassable. Unless of course he wanted to stay.

He sat now on the balcony of his small hotel, watching the foam-crowned 
waves rushing below while he sipped beer and chain-smoked Comme Il Faut 
cigarettes, the local brand. The place had been empty for most of the 
week, but now the balcony, which accommodated just three tables, felt 
crowded with a party of OAS election observers, who'd been turned back 
from their day's errands by the demonstrations surrounding the town. 
Their apparent leader was a burly, blond South African who spoke both 
English and French in a clipped Dutch accent; Oliver thought of him 
privately as the Boer. Throughout his stay the OAS group had irritated 
him by clicking on their laptops and talking on their cell phones and 
going out jogging in the morning before they commenced their good works 
for the day, and he was ashamed of the feeling.

He came twice annually to Haiti to put in a couple of weeks of surgery 
up at La Victoire, where one of his friends from medical school had 
clawed out a tiny hospital that he kept going day by day, with all the 
hooks and crooks required to main roughly adequate conditions in a 
region where there were no roads or electricity or telephones or 
toilets, where most of the water was so contaminated that a spoonful 
would start dysentery or set up fatal sepsis in a wound. Oliver's med 
school friend was bucking for saint--so Oliver sometimes sneered to 
himself--but the Haitians on the plateau took him as such without irony. 
They worshiped Dr. Oliver too, for his skill with his knives, for the 
patience and kindness and healing touch that only their own need and 
trust could inspire in him. Sometimes it struck him that he lived the 
other 10 months of the year for their smiles.

No one was smiling much today. Oliver had been for a drive in the 
country, and when he reentered the town at noon, demonstrators were 
setting up barricades along both of the two roads in and out; some of 
them were already afire, and he'd got through by a matter of minutes. 
Since he made a point of staying out of Haitian politics, he wasn't too 
clear on the grievance involved: something to do with election results, 
the way the votes had been counted. The OAS group was all abuzz with it, 
and somehow seemed to be the cause of it. Since they were networked all 
over the place, they got good information on their cell phones. Oliver 
had developed a speaking acquaintance with the Boer, and learned from 
him that trees had been felled across the road at Dondon and the bridge 
welded shut at Limbe.

He drained his beer, got up and walked down the steeply sloped drive to 
Boulevard de Mer. Above the whitecaps a huge bird circled. The Boer had 
identified it as a grande fregate; Oliver had liked him for knowing 
that. It was so windy that grit blew up into his eyes as he walked, and 
the false rain clouds still swirled above the peaks. The curve of the 
harbor front gave him an excellent view of the plumes of black tire 
smoke stretching out down the road from La Fossette. He wanted to see if 
the trouble was penetrating the town, but everything was calm as far as 
the central square, which was as far as it seemed prudent to go. He 
doubled back, stopped for another beer in the garden of the Hotel Roi 
Christophe. By then night had fallen and the clouds had dissipated. The 
moon was dark, and he walked through the blackout under the stars to the 
summit of the Hotel Mont Joli.

This was a more elaborate hotel than his own, with working telephones 
and a mix of international and Haitian clients. Oliver got his supper 
here and scrounged for news among his acquaintances. As the whole 
northern region was now cut off from the rest of the country, news was a 
matter of speculation: Down in Port-au-Prince, American troops were 
rumored to have set up a cordon around the palace; civilian planes 
already had been grounded; the airport perhaps was already shut down. 
Oliver felt his first pulse of real discomfort. Normally these things 
didn't last more than one day, but the Boer had predicted a longer 
siege. Oliver had counted on him to be wrong, since he was due to fly 
out in the morning--not from the capital, fortunately, but from the tiny 
Cap Haitien airport . . . out on the dark plain beyond the gates of the 
city, where flames were now shooting into the night sky.

He paid his tab and went down to L'Aurore, a newly refurbished nightclub 
on the waterfront. There, as he'd hoped, he found Magloire, killing time 
by watching Haitians of the diaspora dumping money into the slot 
machines in the back. He'd known the young man for several years, and 
sometimes employed him on small missions--he'd been down on his luck the 
last few visits, though his magnificent physique was not yet too much 
damaged by malnutrition.

"N'ap kite pito que prevu demain," he said, in his sloppy mixture of 
French and Kreyol. We'll be leaving earlier than expected. "Six in the 
morning--and for that, I double your salary." Magloire gave him a 
brilliant smile and lightly brushed his hand.

Double the money was $40 U.S., to Magloire a marvelous sum these 
days--also he liked Olivair and wanted to see him safe on his way. The 
blan had recognized him at once when he came into L'Aurore, had bought 
him a beer and led him to a table under the blue lights and, while 
gently patting the crook of his elbow, counseled him not to watch the 
slot machines. They only will tell you mwen vle lajan, Olivair had said, 
I want money, and he was right--Magloire could feel his own eyes dulling 
when he watched the brightly spinning reels, the plump hands of the 
Miami Haitians punching the buttons--but there was nothing else to do, 
no work for months, no money to resume his broken schooling. With $40 he 
would be several steps closer to the boat he meant to take to Miami, 
though he knew that many were taken by the U.S. sailors, and others sank 
and drowned the people they carried. As soon as the blan had gone, he 
went to his house to sleep, and lay on the mat thinking happily of 
Olivair, a wise doctor, a man who went to Mass on Sunday, who had this 
week once given Magloire $20 Haitian only because he saw he was in want 
and another day the same sum to walk with him to Fort Picolet, although 
he easily could have got there without guidance. Olivair had said he 
wanted to see the ruins of the old fort, but Magloire thought he was 
also interested in the spirits that lived there, because he tied a red 
cloth on his head when they drew near, and because he had climbed 
awkwardly down the cliff to touch the water of the sacred spring. With 
his longish gray hair and curling white beard, Olivair looked something 
like Pere Noel, but there was a strange light in his eyes sometimes, as 
though a spirit stood behind his head. Magloire's own dreams were 
directed by Metres Ezili, and he thought in the instant before he slept 
that maybe it was she who'd spoken with the tongue of the blan, to warn 
him off the slot machines.

Oliver stood in the shadows of his room, rooted by the sight of his own 
weird eyes in the mirror. He was likely to be in for some inconvenience 
and delay. Probably no worse. Even if the barricades stayed up tomorrow 
they would probably be passable at dawn--or so he gambled. But if the 
planes weren't flying when he reached the airport (another rumor 
floating at the Mont Joli) then, if the Boer were right, he might not 
even be able to make it back into town. . . . He could hear them now, 
still talking, drinking on the balcony, though it was close to midnight. 
His worry lived in a closed bubble, drifting outside of his head. Five 
or 15 minutes before, he'd swallowed a tablet of pharmaceutical heroin, 
which he obtained by legal prescription in the States. If he was stuck 
here for too much longer he wouldn't be able to resupply. Of course a 
drug plane landed every night at 9 o'clock, on the same airstrip he 
hoped to take off from, but he had no idea how to hook up with that. 
He'd have to roll over and expose his belly . . . or kick.

Though he ought to be sleeping, he went to join the group on the 
balcony, grabbing a beer from the case on his way. Because they all 
believed that they were trapped in the hotel, they seemed more receptive 
to his company than before. But he said nothing, smoked and observed, 
from a chair at the left hand of the Boer. The whiff of danger seemed to 
be squeezing some pheromones out of the younger people at the far end of 
the table, but the talk was about religion. Orthodox atheists all but 
one, they'd ganged up on the one believer, a black man from Francophone 
Africa who appeared to be too drunk to talk.

Oliver's sympathies were with the African, though he couldn't find a 
viable way to say it. Haiti was a mystical country, and without that it 
would be nothing. It was God and the spirits that gave the people their 
fortitude, their resilience, their beautiful heart-melting smiles in the 
face of the most atrocious adversity the world had ever seen. If Oliver 
said so he would be instantly written off as a sentimentalist. These 
people were too well-informed, too certain. They knew the names of all 
the birds. The young woman at the far end of the table was scoffing at 
the African, from the redoubt of her secular self-assurance.

"Ou pa genyen kwayans?" Oliver suddenly lanced at her. "Nul." Though the 
conversation had been in English, he felt sure that she would 
understand, and she did, responding at once with a contemptuous flick of 
her fingers, No, she had no belief--none. She was completely alone with 
herself. The world was empty for her, but she didn't know it. There was 
a similar hollow in him, which he just now filled with narcotics, but at 
that moment he hated her purely, and was also a little afraid. She was 
ignoring him, however, had already reentered her flirtation.

"When I was 12 years old in South Africa," the Boer was saying, "I wrote 
an essay that won a school prize--it was about how the black man was 
inferior to the white, and how the black must have the white man to 
govern him." He blinked, surprised by what he'd said, as if some force 
outside himself had made him say it. "I never told anyone that before." 
No one but Oliver and the African was listening.

Magloire woke with a clutching fear that he was late, too late; there 
was no watch or clock anywhere in his dwelling, but the brightness of 
the light outside alarmed him. He jammed on his clothes and ran to the 
hotel. If he missed this meeting everything would start moving backward 
for him and he would be that many steps farther away from the boat, 
Miami, the life that hung suspended in his future. Luckily the hotel was 
not far, but from the street he could not see if Olivair's rented 
four-by-four was still parked behind the high wall. The gate was open 
but he had not been invited up, and there was an enormous dog in the 
house that he feared might be savage.

Salving his cottonmouth with a Coke, Oliver stepped out on the balcony 
at a quarter past 6. The connection with Magloire, watching for him on 
the street below, felt like an electric shock. Their relative position 
said everything he didn't want to know. Top of the world, he hummed to 
himself, I'm sitting on top of the world. Top of the food chain, Ma! And 
there was no way he could ever get down, even if he really, truly wanted 
to. He understood Magloire's hunger to reach the spiritual desert where 
he himself wandered. He knew Magloire's suicidal plan about the boat and 
knew he could do nothing to stop it. Raised as a Catholic, he knew about 
using the tweezers to move the mountain of sand. Magloire's was a 
valuable life, but he could not save it. There was nothing he could 
save. Like all the other well-informed, well-intentioned folk who 
traveled among the wretched of the Earth, he was in the end no more than 
a tourist. Therefore he should despise himself still more than them. The 
dog came behind him and began licking his hands. Oliver gave the huge 
animal a rub on the ears, then signaled to Magloire that he'd be right 

The barricades were constructed out of hulks of cars and sheets of 
crumpled tin and scrap lumber and broken bottles and heaps of bamboo, 
and always, interlaced with everything, the foully smoking burning 
tires. But they weren't burning yet this morning, though the asphalt 
still smoldered where they'd been, and the barricades looked unattended. 
A few other vehicles were creeping through. There was always a little 
gap somewhere where you could just squeak through if no one was there to 
close it. Oliver began to feel his spirits lifting. Best of all, his 
airplane waited on the strip, and an official of the airline was just 
unlocking the gate.

So that the airport loiterers would not see it, Oliver gave Magloire the 
money and the car key concealed in a handshake. In his burst of relief 
he found himself telling Magloire the story that Boer had told on 
himself last night. Magloire listened, without judging, his large 
handsome head attentively bent. It seemed a peculiarly Haitian way of 
listening. He was not exactly waiting for anything, but he was willing 
to hear a conclusion if one was to be drawn.

"Paske li te genyen to," Oliver said, "Paske li kap di sa, nou kap 
komanse renmen l." It seemed to him that after all it was the meaning of 
the experience. Outside of Haiti he could never have said it, probably 
could not have had the thought. Because his Kreyol was so poor it was 
necessary to say everything with extreme simplicity. Also the language 
itself worked in the idea's favor. The word for like was the same as for 
love; the word for you might sometimes be the word for we. Because he 
was wrong, and because he could say it, we can begin to love him.

Magloire's face was hard to read. Oliver wasn't sure where his message 
had gone, but at least he'd managed to put in the bottle. Maybe there 
was a God after all. At least there was an airplane. The wind was 
tearing across the airstrip, and he anchored his hat on his head with 
one hand. As he made the first step toward the stairs lowering from the 
plane's hatch, Magloire touched him very gently on his other hand, and 

The U.S. State Department does not prohibit travel to Haiti but warns 
that there are no "safe areas" because of growing crime, though most is 
not targeted at U.S. citizens. The country continues to experience civil 
and political unrest, particularly during election periods. For more 
information, call 202-647-5225, or check the State Department Web site 
at www.travel.state.gov.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company