The Xaragua Hotel
[ places - october 08 ]
The Xaragua Hotel lies 80 kilometres south of Gonaives along a stretch of coastline that was once a Riviera of sorts. That was 40 years ago. Today the beaches are strewn with the bones of abandoned hotels. Rusting signs hang over the entrances like gravestones. The Xaragua however, is still open. It survives on a trade of UN police officers stationed in the town of Saint Marc, 30 kilometres away. It is the only functioning hotel in the area.
To get there from Gonaives is a tedious journey. The surface of Route 1 is a leprous sore of boils and craters with occasional stretches of road thrown in. Passing tap-taps leave a vapour trail of dust while caws of blanc! blanc! follow our scooters along the edges of rice fields. To avoid crashing I have to grab the handlebars like a drill and lock my eyes onto the road ahead as though it might disappear at any moment. With its dust and holes, Route 1 is a cloud of unknowing.
Out of town, the fields are ragged and worn. Every hour or so, the silence is churned up by yellow school buses, hand-me-downs from Canada, that bullet north and south, crammed full of passengers. The drivers sound their horns from a long way off and by the time they're bearing down on you, it's best to just pull off into the bushes to wait for the fireball of dust to pass. As the horns fade the countryside emerges slowly with barefoot women carrying buckets of water on their heads; their black skin rimed with dust.
The hills are red and treeless but in the 19th century this place was rich in wood. An 1880 edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica lists the following species: mahogany, manchineel, satinwood, rosewood, cinnamon wood, yellow acoma, gri-gri, brazil wood, logwood, fustic, and sassafras. On the mountains there were "extensive forests of pine and a species of oak." Today there's nothing.
There are many reasons for the deforestation, though one of the main ones is the continued use of charcoal for fuel. When viewed from the hills above, Gonaives is often lost behind a pall of smoke - not the yellow smog of Santiago or Los Angeles, but the fine grey confetti of wood smoke.
After Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the demand for charcoal increased dramatically and logging intensified. In addition to this, a US economic embargo resulted in even fruit trees such as mangoes being converted into charcoal because farmers could no longer sell fruit for export. Today, a bag of charcoal costs $55 in treeless areas and $20 in the two per cent of the country where forests remain. Because of the deforestation, 36 million tons of topsoil are lost every year causing serious damage to roads, dams and marine ecosystems. In some areas virtually all of the topsoil has been lost, exposing large stretches of bare rock. The Martian landscape has given rise to the Creole expression "the mountains are showing their bones."
The people are also showing their bones. Every year 300,000 Haitians migrate to the US. In the mid '90s, Florida alone was spending $250 million annually to cater for their needs. On the other side of the scales, US AID was spending just $14 million annually on environmental safeguards throughout the entire Caribbean. 
In the rice fields men work alongside women, attacking the mud with hoes. There are no machines. They work in a silent rhythm. The country greeting is: Ki jan ou ye? The people how are they? The answer is poor. The sun rises, anger is distilled into laughter, poverty enters the blood like wine. Only one-third of the country is suitable for farming but because of population pressure three-fifths is cultivated and much of this on mountainous slopes of more than 20°. Per capita grain production is only a little over half of what it was 40 years ago. Everything points to disaster, though the end of the world is quiet.
"In richness and variety of vegetable products Hayti is not excelled by any other country in the world. All tropical plants and trees grow here in perfection... among its indigenous productions are cotton, rice, maize, tobacco, cocoa, ginger, native indigo (indigo marron or sauvage), arrowroot, manioc or cassava, pimento, banana, plantain, pine-apple, artichoke, yam, and sweet potato. Among its important plants and fruits are sugar-cane, coffee, indigo, melons, the legumes, cabbage, lucerne, guinea grass, bamboo, grape, mulberry, and fig." This was the beauty that brought the Spanish and the French sniffing around its breasts. They made the island the most valuable territory on earth. They worked it to death.
Back on the road to the Xaragua, a convoy of UN oil tankers comes against us in a cyclone of dust. They're bringing fuel for the helicopters, jeeps, tanks and most importantly, the generators in the UN base at Gonaives. The drivers wave at fellow blancs, as is customary. Further down the road, at the police checkpoint outside the village of Ponte Sondee, officers of the Police National d'Haiti (PNH) wave us through with pistols. A few stand around holding shotguns. It's not an enviable job. Only three years ago they were being killed at a rate of one every five days. Today it is less, but security is still tenuous, and no one is quite sure who is in power, especially as the gangs overlap significantly with the PNH in curious genetic hybrids.
Past the checkpoint, the village is jammed for market day. A blare of ra-ra music, hot as tabasco sauce, spills over peppers, mangoes and oranges. The road is blocked with people and tap-taps. Ragged awnings are held up with bony sticks. We're in a bad position here; motors idling and feet on the ground; hemmed in on all sides and sticking out like white birds in a burnt forest. The crowd squeezes through; women in bright dresses, men with fighting cocks dangling upside down like yo-yos. The head of a sheep floats above the crowd. A wheelbarrow of ice overturns. Voices scream and filthy wads of cash change hands. By the roadside, row upon row of donkeys are tied to poles like cars parked outside a Walmart. It is a scene from Breughel, except the Dutch sky has cracked open, and lemon juice is pouring down on our heads. On the side of a tap-tap, Jesus waves an American flag while John the Baptist sits on a rocket. Painted over the windscreens of the tap-taps are the headings: Puissance, Á Dieu, Kathya, Job 13, Isaiah 59:
We stumble as though noon were twilight
And dwell in the dark like the dead.
We growl, all of us, like bears,
And moan like doves,
Waiting for the justice that never comes,
For salvation that is removed far away from us.
A little after midday, our wheels click up onto the smooth driveway of the Xaragua and we enter another world. Painted curbs, clipped bushes, mowed lawns - a giddiness takes hold because we haven't seen these things for a long time. We read them like a fairytale. But it's a faded beauty. There isn't a single car in the parking lot and the air shimmers with a Crusoe emptiness. The hotel itself looks like a forgotten movie star caked in rouge.
Beyond the lobby is a patio and pool. In the bay, the small island of La Gonave cools in the water. It seems oddly appropriate that this hotel, as a last vestige of luxury, should be looking out onto the most forgotten region of Haiti. A priest who works on La Gonave says: "in our school we teach the children how to read and write, but when they are able, what next? On the whole island you cannot buy a newspaper, book or pencil, nothing." Drinking water is rationed and people queue at wells until late at night to fill their buckets. In 2005, the former president of Haiti, Gerard Latortue, addressed an EU summit with his vision for the future: "imagine a golf course and hotels on La Gonave - the same sort of development that they have at Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic!" Imagine all the people eating golf balls and drinking water out of a swimming pool with straws.
In the lobby a breeze ruffles the curtains. Behind the reception desk an old telephone exchange is cobwebbed with wires. Everything is out of date and oversized. An elderly man with a strong eastern European accent introduces himself as the owner of the Xaragua. Mr Koniec is a healthy looking, un-killable veteran of the Caribbean. His long years have compressed his body into a small radioactive core. It's hard to imagine how his hotel has survived but Mr Koniec must have learned to eel his way through the chimeres and the senators. Governments sink as often as the sun, and during the night there's always a purge. Somehow the Xaragua has managed to avoid it all. Immunity however, usually comes with a jab of the disease.
Two jeeps come to a halt outside and a female French-Canadian officer strolls in, festooned with handcuffs, pistol and truncheon. In her hands are two dry-cleaned uniforms wrapped in plastic. On the beach, two locals are trudging up and down, laden with trinkets - tourist hawkers, the dead-end of an evolutionary line.
The parking lot begins to fill and officers swarm around the patio. Dinner is served at the white tables - a plate of conch, chips, rice and coke. A French officer tells us that he likes it here. The place is difficult but the work is easy. There are no big shot UN administrators to bother him. The heads of MINUSTAH (the UN Stabilisation Mission for Haiti) stay up north in Cap Haitien where they cram into a dozen five-star hotels. They are known locally as TOURISTAH.
Cap Haitien is a coveted position; the Hollywood of Haiti, seasoned with sex and intrigue. Everyone wants a job there and that means that everyone is getting right up everyone else's nose. The luxury comes with extra paperwork and the tedium of bowing to the sun kings but most are willing to put up with it for a five-star life. The French officer however says that he prefers to be left alone, and that's what he likes about the Xaragua. Sure, it might be a little faded, but you'd have to be a real asshole to start complaining once you've seen what's over the wall.
After dinner, it's time for us to turn back for Gonaives, but one of the scooters has a flat, and a groundsman comes over to help, along with another employee dressed in a white shirt. One pumps the tyre while the other holds the nozzle. When they're done Céline gives the man in the white shirt a handful of coins, telling him to share them with his colleague. They stare at each other. There is no way the groundsman is going to get a penny. Awkwardly, they wait for us to leave. The man in the shirt smiles. Céline has to take the coins out of the maw of his hand and divide them up; three pieces here, three pieces there.
Leaving by the gatehouse, we take in a last eyeful of luxury before clattering down onto Route 1. A few miles up the road, the tyre runs flat again. The sun is going down and there is no way we can make it to Gonaives by nightfall. Rolling the bike to the nearest village we find a yard of greased stones where mechanics are taking engines apart. A dyslexia of wires, spokes and tins litter the ground. When they see us coming there is a jam in the flow of the day. One of the men drops his tools.
Silence like rigor mortis.
Caoutchou is Creole for a tyre, though it comes from an Indian word for the weeping tree or rubber plant.
He flips the bike upside down, grabs a wrench from a tool box and gets to work. A radio crackles with football commentary. It's a friendly between the UN and a local team. Three years ago riot police arrived on the scene of a similar game and ordered the players to lie down while hooded men marched onto the field and hacked eight people to death - a settling of paramilitary scores and a piece of macabre theatre to let the locals know who is in control. But soccer is still popular, and the crowds still go to the games. As the commentator howls about a near miss, we sit down on tyres and watch the traffic. Across the road, a young girl fills a bucket from a trickling tap. A coke truck passes, clinking with empties. In all its glory, blazing red and lined with shining chrome, it is the very opposite of the ragged ambulance that sits outside the hospital in Gonaives. The last account I heard of that ambulance involved a local politician who was shot and had to be rushed to hospital. The ambulance ran out of petrol and the wounded man had to wait by the side of the road for a private car to bring him to the hospital.
The mechanic working on our scooter smiles at a friend across the road, rolling imaginary bank notes through his fingers. Then he frowns as he watches five feral looking boys approaching. The eyes of the oldest boy swirl with electricity. The mechanic raises a fist to hunt him away; but he stares back. His body is sharp and scrawny as a wolf. Tap-taps pass along the road with their bible quotations of love and tolerance. But this boy is hungry. If he loves, he will starve. If he hits, he will eat. Two hundred volts of survival course through his veins. A stupor hangs in the air.
Once our tyre is fixed, we turn back for the Xaragua. Dusk is settling in the fields and the caw of birds scrapes the silence clean. The political scene has been quiet for weeks now, but there is no peace; only an eerie lull. The entrance of the hotel is pooled in dark and it's a relief to cross over the drawbridge before night. A receptionist gives us the keys to room 209 where we find threadbare armchairs, dusty beds and a bathroom as oversized as seventies sunglasses. The balcony is cluttered with leaves. We go down to the pool to wash the road off our skin.
The underwater lamps of the pool shimmer like jellyfish. Then a powercut, and the hotel cruises to a Titanic halt. In the bay the hunch-back of Ile de la Gonave is dark under starlight. A lighthouse jewels its waist and ragged junks sail the bay with cargoes of drugs and rice.
A flash light flickers inside the hotel and the voices on the patio are hushed as someone fumbles for the switch of a generator. A motor revs up and light returns. Dinner is almost ready. Steaming trays of meat are placed on a buffet table. Calypso music comes from the bar. Everyone tucks in and there is the odd delusion that all is well with the world, that this is the natural order. The officers and NGOs look like worn out zookeepers, restoring their energy for tomorrow's safari. Drinking and joking in a babel of languages, their faces are a mixture of the adventurous, the shady, the desperate and the dim. In the 19th century, convicts in Argentina were sent to join the army deep in the pampas. Similarly, these people are not exactly volunteers. A divorce here, a reprimand there; a trip to Haiti is rarely the first choice in a flawless career. UN money draws them like Californian gold. The chaos is also appealing. Most are fleeing the asphyxiation of law and order, peace and stability - the very things that they're trying to impose.
After dinner a handful remain, speaking in hushed tones. Sitting on the rim of a flower pot in the car park, I try to work out why I feel so good and realise that it's because the Xaragua is the first safe place that I've been to in Haiti. No one would be stupid enough to attack a hotel full of UN guns and jeeps. Living in Gonaives, we've grown into a shell of anxiety. At dusk the front of our house is locked and Gros Mal is let loose around the yard, but that is the extent of our security. There are no high walls, no wires or gates. In the event of an emergency we're supposed to set off a firecracker to deter any intruders, but no one's quite sure where the firecracker is. Once the sky is a-flare with red and blue, we're to ring the UN switchboard and wait for help. In the meantime we can sit down for a cup of tea with our visitors. When I sleep, I dream of voices by the waterfront whispering our address and handing our weapons. Paranoia - yes; but paranoia backed by statistics. In the vodou night, the rooster beneath our window sets off an ugly din that rolls all the way to the port. I can hear the final explosion in the throat of the one who'll have his head chopped off in the morning.
Everything is different in the Xaragua. It is safe, so safe that I feel weightless. For the first time I can think about the island without mixing my own fear into the mulch. And once you get out of the way of yourself, what's to see? A ruling class studying to outdo the donor countries in selfishness. Statesmen slitting throats to get in front of microphones. Farmers desperately running up to us, asking if we're agronomists because their crops are failing and they don't know what to do. Time passes. Hurricanes claw up the years, and the country continues to fall without ever hitting the ground. It is kept on life support, with consultants from Europe and America stopping by once a month to fiddle with the knobs before going home in escorted cavalcades.
Even something as simple as sleep is a problem. When we ask our neighbours if they are afraid at night, they shrug as if to say "yes, of course." Peaceful sleep needs high walls, and there are not many high walls in Gonaives. Most Haitians cannot comprehend the ease of an average European town. Likewise, Europeans have a limited imagination. Machetes, executions, chimeres? Surely you are exaggerating. It's difficult for the comfortable half of the world to accept that they are living in a cocooned minority. From Paris or London you can't see the bursting morgues of Port-au-Prince, where the bodies are turning from blue to green. Refrigeration is a problem. At night, with no electricity, the streets are disputed territory between the living and the dead.
In the morning there is sunlight on a table of melons. The French officer in his bullet proof vest slices the fruit and gossips about a new recruit who refused to go into a police station because of the smell. He downs the dregs of his coffee and heads for the road.
"Have a nice day!" he shouts to a colleague.
Jeeps glide out the driveway like sailboats before hitting the high seas of Route 1. As soon as the dust has cleared, we hit the road ourselves. An hour into the journey and we come against ten men in shorts and t-shirts; a raggle-taggle team of football players, jogging along the side of the road. On Mars they look for water but here the surest sign of life is this team in training for a local game. Burning energy uselessly; not hoeing in the fields or planting rice, just wasting precious fat so that they might beat a neighbouring football team.
Outside of Ponte Sondee there is a mural advertising a funeral home. A coffin slants diagonally with an oddly comic corpse inside. The body looks like it might spring up at any moment. The simple building is not a sombre colour as it would be in Europe, but a lively yellow. It's difficult to tell it apart from the store selling bananas next door. Taking a break from the road we sit on the ground by one of the fruit sellers. An old woman with silvery hair, pleated in Rastafarian style, greets us warmly. Locals stare. It's inappropriate for a blanc to sit on the ground like this. Similarly, our neighbours used to complain about the Cuban doctors cycling to work on bikes. They insisted that "blancs should use motos or machines, not bicycles."
The old woman brings out chairs for us. A Port-au-Prince tap-tap stops and the driver jumps out. He throws us a two fingered fuck-off as he passes. Passengers on the roof stretch their legs and shift themselves among bags of rice and squawking chickens. Local babushkas sell them trays of food.
An hour later and 10 kilometres short of Gonaives another tyre runs flat. This time we're stranded by a small graveyard, caked in white dust. A tall man in oily jeans and black t-shirt approaches and points to some wattle and daub huts up ahead. He gestures for us to follow and we wheel the scooter to his home where goats are munching mouthfuls of a thorny bush. A bicycle hangs in a tree like a hat and a woman sits on a porch. They live in the same kind of huts that their ancestors left behind when they were sold to the French in west Africa. That was in the former kingdom of Dahomey where in the late 18th century the chief of that territory earned around £250,000 a year from the slave trade; money he spent mostly on poor quality firearms and industrial-grade alcohol. Two centuries later, this family's house is still a crust of mud held together with sunlight. The woman thumps a post that supports the roof. Five children appear, almost naked, with sores on their ankles; wide eyed with fear. We are aliens that they have only ever heard about but never seen. The woman laughs. Her voice is hard as the moon. Next door in the Dominican Republic the laughter is softer. Here, it sounds more like Beckett's third laugh - the mirthless one that laughs at what is not happy.
We try to talk to her but it is not easy. We come from different planets - that grain of dissimilarity again. Skinny dogs fight each, one licks gunge out of a tin, another pants in the shade, dying slowly. A blackened pot sits on top of a mound of stones. One of the children holds a shard of mirror in his hand. He grasps it tightly, afraid to lose his toy. The man walks slowly about the yard, searching for tools. He picks up a canister, examines it, rubs it, throws it away. He lights a flame in a tallow pot. The tyre comes off and a patch of rubber is melted onto the inner tube.
While we wait the woman explains that the mother of the youngest child is dead. Childbirth? Hurricane? "Uh - huh." A small girl buries her head in the grandmother's dress. The woman thumps the pole again. A dull tom-tom beat. She tells us the names of all the children.
The tyre gets fixed and the man washes his hands in a tub of water. When asked how much he wants, he shrugs. His mouth says "non" but his whole body is calling his mouth an idiot. Four hundred gourdes are counted out and handed to him. He walks over to his family, hesitant at first; then he breaks into a smile and starts to laugh. Three days income! He jokes with us and the tension ebbs away.
Exiting through the ribs of the bushes, we wave goodbye like two Potzos, leaving the family to their country road, tree, evening. It's impossible to hold that kind of poverty in focus for long. Only mild insights are permitted, ones that are not too depressing. That's why we need the perfume of culture to drown out the panting dogs, the naked children playing mutely in the yard. If you think about this family for too long then logic will squat in your head and shit out the truth - this is how the world looks, most of it, about seven tenths of it, though you'd never get this impression from watching the news or reading the newspapers.
There is a lot of dust on Route 1, a good excuse for any tears that might stick to your face. Genuine tears however are more difficult to deal with, or as a Pole once said: the problem of commercially exploiting genuine tears is a real headache for technologists.
Gonaives is busy at three o'clock, overflowing with wheelbarrows, stalls, dirt and smoke - a carwash for the soul. There is no time to fumble with sorrow. Life is too strong for the blanc. When I first drank this place, it tasted like vodka. But you get used to it; like an alcoholic. The scooters ribbet in and out of the muddy back lanes. We are laughing now; we are home.