@ the optimistic minister for tourism

haiti
 the optimistic minister for tourism

HE LOOKED OUT of the window, and Monsieur Jolicoeur spoke slowly, as if to a child.

You see, his eys flickered across the view, as it turned out, there never was a third world war. There was. He stopped, and blinked. As if in surprise. A third world’s war. You understand? Proxy wars. Nasty. A long way away from. He finally looked Stephen Lambert in the eye. Your home. But in your name. He blinked again. In your name. He touched the tip of each finger as he went through the roll-call, a teacher with a pupil. Vietnam. Angola, Guatemala. Afghanistan. Lebanon. El Salvador. The Congo. Nicaragua. Cambodia …

When his laughter came it was as if from a different body. It filled the room; it rolled out across the bare desk in front of him; it clumsily bumped against the packing cases beneath the window and then escaped into the street. Into the streets of Cap Haitien, where it joined the mayhem of other noises that January afternoon. The many other voices, and the shouts and the peals of laughter. The bursts of music and the hammering of metals. The engines of cars and the cries of the fruit vendors joined his laughter. It was the laughter of exhaustion, of having been through this list one time too many. The list tired him, and amused him.

His body, though, was slim and supple, he had the muscle tone that suggested he might have been handy in a street fight, and his skin, his bronzed skin, spoke of the mulatto, of the mixing of the blood of slaves and plantation owners many years ago, but he looked like a man of thought – not of action. Perhaps, he realised, the American found his moustache – the touch of the toothbrush on his upper lip – amusing, for he continually flicked at it with his middle finger while he laughed. As if it were a fly that needed dislodging. And still the American waited.

You have to understand that small countries, poor countries like ours are always glad of any help your government, or governments like yours, your people, your media are willing to offer. At the same time. Another flick of his moustache. We have to know …

Where you stand. Stephen Lambert finished for him. This was not the first time that Lambert had found himself in such a situation. He could, like Jolicoeur, touch the tip of each finger as he went through his parallel roll-call. Of the countries that had always lived in the shadow of his United States of America. Who had felt bullied and belittled, who knew only of impotence and emasculation. Until the only option left was that of the small man behind a battered desk, who would – just like Monsieur Jolicoeur – poke at Lambert’s passport with a chewed pencil, or a cracked Biro, or a fountain pen that had run out of ink, and estimate its value.

– Precisely. This time no laugh, this time a tight little smile. He sprang to his feet and walked to the window. If you are who you say you are, Monsieur Lambert, then you and I can do business. This country, he gestured at the dusty street outside, as if he were Louis XIV and this were Versailles, has much to offer the enlightened tourist.

            – Of course. This time it was Lambert’s turn to smile. As I told you, that’s why I’m here.

            – Of course, we shall see. AndJolicoeur opened a drawer in his desk into which he skidded Lambert’s passport with a deft flick of his wrist.

There had been no coercion, no threats. It had obviously been Lambert’s rotten luck to have arrived on the nineteen-seater Lynx Air Fairchild Metrolier III from Miami International with the six negroes who had immediately been arrested on landing at what passed for the airport at Cap Haitien. The six men had been driven away in two Toyota trucks, and Lambert had been left behind with one soldier to guard him. A soldier, he imagined, although his fatigues carried no insignia, no stars or stripes or epaulettes that could have signified a rank. Just a youth with a gun, smoking his cigarette. To the edge of the airfield he could see another truck, another Toyota, with a large “UN” stencilled on its doors. The truck had circled, had observed the white man and the soldier by the hand-painted sign that said Departure International Porte II, and had disappeared in a cloud of dust. It had done its business, it had observed and a note had been made. Perhaps, Lambert had thought, a manifest would be checked, and his name would be logged. He had always felt safer, Lambert had always convinced himself, if his name made an appearance on an official list. Lists were what made people like Lambert feel secure. The waiting, though, effectively reminded Lambert of other border controls, other destinations where the dark-blue of his passport had ended up in the calloused hand of a disinterested soldier. It had not been an unfamiliar scene.

Jolicoeur shut the drawer of his desk. Entombing the double-headed eagle of Lambert’s passport. Ever since his tan-coloured Plymouth had swerved into the airport he had been explaining a situation that had appeared to trouble him.

So you are a journalist? He had asked, not expecting an answer for this is what he had already been told. You are here to write about tourism in Haiti? And he had suddenly braked the Plymouth on the road that led into Cap Haitien. Beneath them was the sea, on the sea a cruise liner. There are the tourists, he had said, on the ship. Are these the tourists that you will write for? The ones who drink their cocktails on the ship, and will only step on Haitian soil for their day trip to La Citadelle? Is this your audience, Monsieur Lambert? I fear that tourists do not want to visit Haiti. They would rather the compounds and safety of our neighbour, yes, the safety. The all-inclusive, I believe you call it. We have such a compound, at Labadee. The tourists don’t even know where they are, they just drink their rum cocktails. They are just somewhere in the Caribbean. So why, I wonder, would you want to write about a poor country like ours? Your American marines have been and gone. Your UN advisers and consultants come and go. The only people who stay are your missionaries. Jolicoeur snorted a quick laugh from his flat nostrils. With their bible. And their God.

            The men Lambert had travelled with had not been mentioned. He had heard them on the plane, laughing and talking in the rich stew that was their Creole language. But he knew nothing of them. And they knew nothing of him. It had been hot and sluggish when they had clambered from the aircraft, and for a moment Lambert didn’t know that something was amiss. His six travelling companions had stopped in front of him, on the scuffed field beside the runway. Four men had approached from the shed to one side, their jackets open and blowing aside as they walked, revealing the automatic pistols stuffed into the waistbands of their trousers. A conversation took place. Perhaps an agreement was reached. One of the men with guns pointed at Lambert. Then approached him.

American? he had asked. Lambert had nodded. Passport. And Lambert had handed over his passport, which the man didn’t even look at. He just carried on looking at Lambert, although Lambert couldn’t be sure, as his eyes were covered by the darkest of sunglasses.

Why are you here, Blanc? Lambert could see the reflection of the other men in the sunglasses, by the pick-up trucks, all of them wearing sunglasses, not talking, just watching.

Journalist. He had replied. Travel writer. He road-tested his rusty French. J’ecrit une histoire de Haiti. And he forced a smile. It was not returned.

Attends. He was instructed Lambert waited and the man returned to the shed, gave the passport to the soldier, pointed at Lambert, got into his truck and left. Lambert and the soldier looked at each other, and Lambert knew all he had to do was wait.

– You were lucky, Jolicoeur told him as he locked up the office, that I was taking a holiday up on the Cap. I have a villa near here, he turned and looked at Lambert, at the scruffy figure in jeans and a crumpled shirt, without a passport, on the coast. It is beautiful. You, though, you are staying in the town, yes? At Le Roi Christophe. It will suit you. I believe there are Americans staying there. Consultants, probably. Or, he snorted another of his laughs, missionaries. I shall take you there, and we can sort out this difficulty in the morning. After we have made the checks.

 

LAMBERT THREW HIS duffle bag onto the bed. It awoke a smell in the room, of the unwashed bed linen, of the unwashed bodies that had slept there – it was musty, almost fungal and caught in the back of his throat. And the sharp tang of sweat. The bitter sweat of prostitutes that he had smelt in Latin America and North Africa. Always in the same hotel rooms, the seldom used, unloved rooms of the hinterland. He reached for the telephone by the bed, and immediately replaced it. This was not the place from which to make telephone calls, this was most definitely not the place.

He retraced his steps back to the hotel lobby. He passed no one. No consultants, no missionaries, no tourists. Just the boy asleep at the front desk. Just as he had been when Lambert had checked in. And Lambert walked past him, without waking him, he walked onto the streets of Cap Haitien where, he knew, he was the unusual, he was the different, he, le blanc, was the nigger in the woodpile.

There was, though, a certain freedom to his stride, he was travelling without identity – any one of what had used to have been the feared tonton macoutes, and now were the equally feared attachés, could stop him. Could demand identification. Could beat him and put him in a jail that stank worse than his hotel room. He could be disappeared at the whim of a rum-crazed attaché, a muscled young man in a vest that spoke of the LA Lakers and baggy jeans that whispered of the streets of Compton and a gun whose only language was death. And the sunglasses, always the dark sunglasses. All the same, Lambert knew a sense of freedom as he walked the streets of Cap Haitien, as the afternoon heat intensified, and with it the smells of the town – of refuse and of rubbish being burnt, of sewage and the sea, and the woodsmoke, and the dark tang of the sweat that underpinned everything. That held everything together.

Having shaken the shackles of his passport, of his identity, Lambert felt as if he did not exist. As his walking became more directionless he felt a greater sense of ease. It didn’t matter that no one met his eyes, that the street urchins and the women that waddled by in their torn and multi-coloured skirts showed no interest. The young men with their flimsy briefcases chatting to the young girls with their big, bright smiles had no curiosity in him. He had been on similar streets before, in Latin America and North Africa, but there had always been a sense of contact in the favelas or the Atlas Mountains. There he had been a curio, to be stared at or begged from or robbed. Or just to be smiled at. The stranger walking through them, among them but not of them. But in Cap Haitien it was as if Lambert was of no import, it was as if the cataracts that filmed the old men’s eyes had somehow infected everyone. Even the occasional UN trucks that moved through the streets paid him no note. Even the police, dressed as for war in their body armour and armed with semi-automatics, showed no interest. He was, Lambert realised, not important enough. He was simply a white ghost. You have to know what you’re doing here, Lambert told himself. Or not care what you’re doing.

It was the music that called to him. A strange hybrid of the familiar and the unknown that escaped from an unmarked doorway on a street with no name. It called Lambert in, in to a room that could have been a chapel, could have been a bar, could have been someone’s room. Their living quarters. The floor was earth that had, over the years, become as hard as concrete, sunlight poured in through windows that carried no glass, and the light picked out the scudding clouds of dust that were being churned up by the slow, soft shuffle of the dancers. On a bed, two children slept. In a corner a black and white television set fizzed and popped with images attempting to break through the static. And the band played on.

Lambert settled himself down on a chair, and watched. He watched the strange, hypnotic moves of the dancers that bore no relation to the music. The beat would speed up, would slow down to a murmuring heartbeat, would suffer a sharp, staccato attack of drumbeats, or the squall of an out-of-tune electric guitar – but the dance would maintain its soft shuffle. The dance kept to its own rhythm. Oblivious to the music being played for its benefit. Oblivious to le blanc.

It was like nothing he had ever heard before, yet contained echoes of all that he had heard before. It was ska and gospel and cheap French pop. It was choral and hip-hop. It was experimental. It was baroque. It was a medley of the simplest tunes in the world – nursery rhymes, skipping songs, playground chants – and as familiar as a mother’s kiss on the forehead. Lambert found himself being seduced by the music, he felt it entering him. And nobody paid him any attention.

The music allowed Lambert the space to question himself. But he didn’t take himself up on the offer. When he left the building the sky outside was still the same ferocious blue, still not troubled by clouds, still being baked by the furious sun. Lambert’s head was heavy with the rhythms that continued in the room that could have been a chapel, could have been a bar, could have been someone’s room. Their living quarters. As Lambert walked away down the street he realised he had left all his questions behind him, in that room, for the moment. And during that moment he didn’t shake off the after-effects of the trance he had been embraced by, and that he had embraced. Had it been a matter of minutes, or an hour? How long had it been? Would his questions catch up with him later?

He came across a bar. Another room, really, another room that offered him succour, respite, breathing space. He sat beneath the television set, its sound turned down, its picture showing the fuzzed outlines of basketball players – jumping, twirling, passing, slam-dunking in a blur of static. He sat there and ordered a rum-cola and Lambert felt the liquor loosen him, as it travelled through his body, he felt it relax him more than the strange rhythms had. And he thought of the last drink he had taken, in Miami, when he had been told of his assignment.

The brief Haitian dusk had been and gone when Lambert exited the building. He stood in the street, pinpricks of light came from windows and doorways and he realised he was lost. And alone, he felt very alone in the darkness of the town. To his right the street became an alleyway that disappeared into the night, to his left was noise, movement, life and, most importantly, electric light. Lambert moved towards the light, towards what might pass for the action, his feet feeling their way on the rutted road in the darkness that had settled on Cap Haitien. The twin beams of headlights scissored down the street towards him. He was feeling alone, now he felt vulnerable. The white halogen glare caught him, stunned him as it might a rabbit, and rooted him to the spot. The engine was turned off and all Lambert could hear in the street was the ticking of the motor as it cooled. The headlamps still held him in their grip.

Monsieur, with a mixture of emotions Lambert recognised the voice, Monsieur Lambert. I have received news, Jolicouer called from beyond the headlights. I have confirmation. Of your bona fides. The headlights dipped, and Lambert could discern the outline of three figures in the Suzuki Tracker. Come, he saw an arm windmilling out of the passenger window, let us discuss your itinerary.

            It had been in Miami that he had last been told of his ‘itinerary’, above a beauty parlour in Little Haiti. He had travelled past deserted shopping malls and raucous strip joints, churches that were strangers to congregations and parking lots with no cars. He knew that he was a lifetime away from the comfort of his hotel on South Beach – with its Frette sheets, with its complementary champagne, with its Hermes bath lotions, with its room service – and that he had been entering a part of Miami that denied its inhabitants everything that they had ever dreamed of. And it had been above that beauty parlour, whose walls bore faded graffiti marking the slogans and the fallen of the drug wars, whose sign boasted that it housed ‘Hail The Lord’s Discount-Unisex Parlour’, that Lambert had been talked through what was supposed to have been his itinerary. As if he were just another tourist preparing for a trip, as if he was an innocent. In those streets of coin-operated launderettes, dark and dingy motels, fast food shops and cheap liquor stores – where no one was ever, truly an innocent.

Jolicoeur jumped down from the Suzuki and stepped in front of the headlights. Lambert saw him spread his arms, as if in apology. He imagined he saw a shrug, as if this situation had been none of Jolicouer’s doing. It was a scratched outline, though, it was a fuzzed approximation of a figure. Lambert could see no face, he could see no expression. He could not guess at what the man was thinking.

What do you think? The sketchy figure laughed. It laughed its large laugh. It is good news, no? And lucky, it is lucky that I am here. I am, as you know, the Minister for Tourism. You and I, together we can make a plan, no? This is a good chance for the both of us, to change our fortunes. It is a bonne chance, Blanc. Heh?”

            And as Jolicoeur stepped towards Lambert he could smell the rum on the man’s breath. Lambert could see the way Jolicoeur’s eyes swam in the bronzed skin of his face, and he realised that Jolicoeur had bought his story.

 

JOLICOUER”S VOICE HAD slowed and thickened as the reefer smoke filled the room. The cubes of ice in his rum chattered to each other as his hand holding the glass described a metronomic arc. The darkness beyond the veranda had intensified, so that the pinpricks of stars seemed, to Lambert, almost to be hallucinations.

Cabaret? Now why would you want to visit Cabaret? What do you hope to see there? There is nothing there, let me tell you, nothing apart from poverty and memories. And all of those memories are bad. They are not those you would want to share, Stephen.

            During the car journey from Cap Haitien to Jolicouer’s villa, he had let Lambert know that he would call him Stephen, and that Lambert should call him Albert. For they were now partners, they were in this together, they were looking towards a brighter future.

            – We have to, Jolicouer had told Lambert, look beyond the here and now. We have to break that shackles that tell us that expectation can only provide disappointment. Pitit pitit zwaso fe nich. He had turned to Lambert and grinned. He translated as the car threw itself through the darkness. Little by little a bird builds its nest.

            Lambert had not reacted to the Creole motto. He had not expected to hear it from the Minister for Tourism. It was not what he had been told. It had not been in his briefing.

The pastor, he had been told in Miami, works in an orphanage in Cabaret. The Tyloo Gardens Orphanage.

            – No, Jolicouer continued, there is nothing for you there. There is nothing for anyone there. Duvalierville, that’s what Papa Doc called Cabaret. It was to have been his Brasilia, it was to have signified a new dawn for our country. Of course, this never came to pass. It was just another opportunity for the Tontons to feather their nests. To raise taxes and levy fines, to extort the money that would never end up in Duvalierville. And what is there now? He took a tug on his reefer, and the rum was swallowed. A rusting Cadillac, if I remember, outside a disused cinema. Children with no shoes, shacks with no electricity. Disease, yes they have disease there. Not much else. Stephen, the bloody town may be of some small historic interest, but it is not going to attract tourists to Haiti. No sir, it is not. Jolicouer suddenly leant forward, grinding out the reefer stub in an ashtray, his voice thickened by sensimelia and dreams. Jacmel is our starting point. An hour from Port-auPrince. An hour on roads that have been freshly tarmacked by your aid workers. smooth clean road, Stephen, no potholes. Financed by your aid workers so that they can get to the beaches at Jacmel for their weekends. French money, American money, Canadian money, it has paved the way for us!

            – But it is the history, Albert, it is the history of Haiti I am interested in. It is what I write about. I understand that your country needs tourism, it needs the money that tourism can bring, but that is not strictly the sort of travel articles I write. Naturally one will lead to the other, but you have to understand …

            – You are my guest. Jolicouer shrugged and smiled at Lambert. We shall discuss this in the morning. There is much to discuss.

In one of the guest bedrooms Lambert knew that he was effectively a prisoner. There were no guards, the doors were unlocked, he could hear the waves that broke on the beach, but there was no escape. He threw his duffel bag onto the second bed that day. This time there was not the bitter sweat of the prostitute, but the salty damp of the coast, and not the reek of unwashed bodies but the unmistakeable aroma of a room that was seldom used, that had seen few guests in its time. Lambert looked around the room and realised that, despite the mottling of damp and the paint that bubbled, despite the cracks in the walls and the dust on the floor, that the house was recently built. Perhaps during Aristide’s time as President, when the trickle of visitors to Haiti had spluttered and faltered and all but dried up. But still, Jolicouer had managed to build his villa. His way had been paved.

Lambert pulled his mobile phone from his duffel bag, knowing that he would be without reception, without any means of making any sort of contact with anyone. He poured some rum into the glass beside his bed and began to drink himself to sleep. The morning would bring him the chance to shake himself free from Jolicouer’s bondage of hospitality. It was what Lambert was used to doing, to slipping away from the interested parties and make his own way. He drank. And the questions returned to tease him, and he questioned the value of his mission, the value of all the missions like this that he had undertaken. And he drank. Then he slept.

– The Internet is a wondrous creation, you have to agree. Jolicouer showed no signs of the previous evening’s excesses, while Lambert was aware that his hangover was building in tandem with the heat. I have spent the morning reading some of your articles, Very interesting. I wonder why, Stephen, you seem to be drawn to poverty? Why, do you think, does it appear to interest you? Perhaps, if I may say, even to excite you?

            Lambert smiled. He smiled at the truth in this. The fact that what had been created as a cover for his work for the agency had turned itself on its head, and it was almost as if the work for the agency had become a cover for his journalism. He wasn’t, he realised, an agent. He was, in fact, less than an operative. He was an errand boy, a messenger boy. He was the last resort in the brave new world of digital technology and satellite phones, of global positioning and electronic chatter, and of the wondrous creation that was the Internet. He was the raggedy-arsed foot-soldier behind enemy lines, wherever those lines may be. He was the bearer of tidings to the places where the instant communication of the 21st Century had not yet reached, or where it was less reliable that a raggedy-arsed foot-soldier. And Jolicouer took Lambert’s smile to signify agreement. And Lambert nodded, he knew that it was the poverty that had always attracted him.

– My country is suffering, Jolicouer told Lambert. It is in the hands of criminals and it is slowly dying, slowly melting away. You do not need to go to Cabaret to see this. It is all around you. In Cap Haitien. In Port-au-Ptince. And in Jacmel. But we shall always have the future, and the future is what we are always working towards. Your government and your Peace Corps and your missionaries, what do they know? The Episcopal Church of Milwaukee can salve their souls by giving dollars to corrupt priests but it is not feeding the hungry children. It does not put books in classrooms and shoes on feet. We need the smooth tarmac of the road that leads to Jacmel. We need what you Americans expect as given.

            And while Albert Jolicouer told Stephen Lambert about the Carnival in Jacmel. While he described in vivid detail the music and the masks, the processions and the dancing, the drinking and the people. The joy and the exotica of poverty overwhelmed Lambert. While Jolicouer conjured images up with his wordplay, while his enthusiasm brooked no dissent and allowed no doubts to be voiced, Lambert knew that he was not going to reach Cabaret. He would not meet the pastor at the orphanage. He would not discuss guns and ammunition, he would not make lists of explosives and medicines. He had been kidnapped by one man’s passion. He would not be able to shake off the bondage of this man’s hospitality. He wasn’t, he realised, nor had he ever been an agent. He was, in fact, even less than an operative. He wasn’t even an errand boy anymore, not even a messenger boy. His cover was gone. His passport was locked in a desk in Cap Haitien. He had been kidnapped. And Jolicouer took Lambert’s smile to signify agreement.

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