After a silky-smooth, nine-and-a-half-hour Virgin flight, during which I watched four films (bliss), we touched down in Atlanta. A long wait in the line for passport control, and then, finally, we were at the front of the queue.
'So, where are you travelling to?' the laid-back custom's official asked as he took my fingerprints. (They take everyone's. Honest).
'Haiti,' I replied with a confident smile.
'Haiti?' he repeated, slack-jawed and wide-eyed.
‘Whaddya wanna go there for? You missionaries?’
‘No, I’m a writer. My latest book is set in Haiti.’
‘Ah. Okay. So you’ve been there before?’
‘Er … no. This is my first time,’ I said, my confidence wavering.
‘Oh, so you want to see Haiti before you submit it?’
‘Yeah. Something like that.’
‘So you a counsellor then?’
‘What? No. I’m a writer and … um … a tennis coach.’
‘Jeez! A writer and a tennis coach. Now that is something.’ he said, exploding with laughter. ‘I been to Haiti once,’ he added, dabbing at his tears with his sleeve. ‘Dangerous place, Haiti. I kiss the ground I live on.’
Oh my God, I thought as he stamped my passport. He’s confusing me with Maddy. Life imitating art, etc, etc.
As we walked away, I turned to Simon, who was looking nervous. ‘Don’t worry. Next time someone asks, I’ll say we’re going for Carnival.’
The half-full Delta Airline flight to Haiti was a very relaxed affair. The airhostess read out the safety briefing at breakneck speed, mixed the best gin and tonic I’d ever tasted on a plane, and didn’t bother enforcing the seatbelt rule, leaving us free to roam around the cabin despite the turbulence. Having been slightly anxious after my strange encounter at U.S. customs, my excitement at the prospect of seeing Haiti for the first time, returned. Sadly, this was not going to be from the air. The sun had set and we arrived in darkness, which might explain why Toussaint Louverture Airport didn’t look as dilapidated as I’d imagined.
Several unsavoury looking individuals in ill-fitting clothes - one toothless, another semi-blind, a couple sporting limps – were hanging around the juddering carousel upon which the passengers’ suitcases were being unceremoniously hurled, many toppling straight off again on to the floor. Almost half of our fellow passengers were white and, judging by the amount of luggage they’d bought with them, were there for the long haul – missionaries, perhaps, or aid workers? Ours arrived (thank you God), and we headed through customs and outside the building where dozens of Haitians were lying in wait. A man in a cream shirt with one brown eye and one a clear blue, an ID tag hanging from his neck, dashed over and ushered us towards his taxi.
‘I am the Minister for Tourism,’ he said. ‘Allow me to take you to your hotel.’
Naturally we questioned his credentials. Clearly he wasn’t the Minister for Tourism, but it was entirely possible he worked for the ministry of tourism. He wasn’t the least bit put out that we were prevaricating, which was reassuring in a way, and eventually we settled on a $40 fare to the Oloffson (where else?). Needs must and all that. It had been a long day.
‘Do you have a reservation?’ our driver asked as we passed a tap tap covered in the traditional psychedelic art, swiftly followed by a UN armoured car. Gulp.
Good question, I thought ruefully. We were a day late arriving and had had no response to any of the emails we’d sent asking for confirmation. ‘Yes we do.’
He asked us the same question several times on the thirty-minute journey. I suppose he was hoping that if he asked us enough we’d change our minds, and he’d make a commission out of his recommendation. Or perhaps I’m being unfairly cynical. Perhaps he really did have a short memory.
‘I am also a guide,’ he said as he unloaded our bags. ‘I can drive you anywhere in Haiti. I give you my card.’
The Oloffson was just as I’d imagined. The sweeping horseshoe of dirty-white stone steps, and the tired but elaborate fretwork were in need of a lick of paint but still it exuded the faded grandeur of a forgotten era. The soft-spoken female receptionist leafed through the wooden pigeonholes behind the mahogany counter and, after what seemed an age, produced our booking. Phew! The name Jorgen Leth (a Danish film director) was inscribed on the prettily decorated commemorative plaque outside the bungalow the porter led us to. I was disappointed, though because Mick Jagger was on the plaque next door. The room was vast and luxurious, with two king-sized beds, a mahogany wardrobe with a door that wouldn’t quite shut properly, a chest of drawers and a desk (yes, just like the book). Despite being dead on our feet we headed for the bar where Joseph (who knew?), a twenty-three-year-old Haitian with a wide, white smile, mixed us a delicious Rum Sour.
An hour later and nursing just the one mosquito bite, which needless-to-say had swelled up impressively, we tumbled into bed, snuggled under the blankets and fell asleep listening to the sound of the highly efficient air-conditioning unit – okay, so I got that wrong!