by Anthony Bourdain
In his book “The Comedians” set in the Papa Doc era Haiti of the ‘60s, Graham Greene’s ambivalent hero describes the “Trianon” Hotel he is returning to:
“..with its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air at night of a Charles Addams house in a number of the New Yorker. You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler with a bat dangling from a chandelier behind him. But in the sunlight, or when the lights went on among the palms, it seemed fragile and period and pretty and absurd, an illustration from a book of fairy tales.”
This, then, is the Hotel Oloffson, the model for Greene’s Trianon–and my home away from home for a little more than a week in Port au Prince. Rarely can one step right into the pages of a book. But the Oloffson seems just as described. The shower heads are omnidirectional. You are issued a single towel and a tiny wafer of soap a day. The pool bar is being used for storage. And the ceilings leak.
But it is a marvelous and magical place. During the earthquake that collapsed steel and concrete buildings all around it, the ungainly wooden gingerbread structure of the Oloffson is said to have listed left, listed right, and finally settled in on itself as pretty much the magnificently noble ruin it has always been. It is still, regardless of its condition, one of the world’s great hotels.
The rooms are filled with random collections of Haitian art. The old and stately bar continues to serve the excellent (and lethal) rum punches and rum sours of the Greene book. Zach, who was staying in the two bedroom “John Barrymore Suite”, had an extra bed, an enormous four poster beast, draped with mosquito netting on his corner balcony that I would appropropriate occasionally–after too many of the aforementioned rum sours.
What is a story set in and around a crumbling post-earthquake heap of a classic Caribbean hotel with a hurricane headed in without an international cast of characters? People with “pasts”, thrown together by chance and circumstance in a strange and dramatic setting–crisis on the way?
We were not lacking in this department.
Richard A. Morse is the owner of the Oloffson. A Princeton graduate, former punk rock musician, currently leader of the Haitian band “RAM” , he shares with Greene’s protagonist a sense of befuddlement as to how, exactly, he ended up the proprietor of a hotel in Haiti.
Sean Penn is an actor. After the January earthquake that killed somewhere between 230,000–300,000 people, he came down to help, intending to stay a few days. He stayed six months straight–living mostly in a tent), and continues to live in Port au Prince (still in a crummy little tent best I can tell) about two weeks out of every month–which is more than I live anywhere. Along with his aid group, J/P HRO, he has essentially built and administered what is generally accepted to be the best managed refugee camp in Haiti–a tent city of 55,000 people. Any thought that here was yet another Hollywood asshole, come down to Haiti to get his picture taken in front of crying babies vanishes after watching this guy for even a few moments. He talks nothing but details and logistics.
And stumbling home after a very hot, very long day of shooting, hauling myself up the steps of the Oloffson, I heard the unexpected but unmistakable booming voice of chef, friend and Spanish secret agent, Jose Andres. And sure enough, there he was, sitting there in safari vest, surrounded by off duty photographers and reporters sent over for the presumed hurricane, plying them with booze. Jose, as I understand it, had come down in the wake of the cholera epidemic, promoting a charitable venture–a simple device–that boils water using the sun. Something they can well use, one imagines.
It’s going to be some kind of show….