The Hotel Olaffson was distinctly less magical on the morning of the Day of the Dead. I got up shortly after seven to dress and pack; we had to leave for the airport by eight. I decided to replenish our room’s water, so trundled our carafe up the concrete stairs, sticky with last night’s beer, and found the single old waiter on the breakfast shift.
“No l’eau.” He shook his head at the sight of my pitcher. “L’eau for sale,” grand ou small.” He used an odd collection of French and English. I shadowed him to the bar’s refrigerator where he extracted a few bottled waters. “Two dollars for small, ten dollars for grand.” His prices were off both in scale and proportion.
“No.” I shook my head and displayed two bills. “These are U.S. dollars – one dollar for small, two dollars for large.” I offered at least twice the going rate, but I was thirsty and the morning after effects of the place dampened my spirit.
“No, no.” His voice rose way too loud. “Two dollars for small; in Haitian is 15 Goudes.”
Exactly, I thought, knowing 15 Goudes equals 36 cents. The man’s face trembled a bit; he was past his prime for the kind of verbal assault Haitians relish flinging at each other, but he was trying his darndest. I sighed, decided against a math lesson on currency exchange, and turned on my heels with an empty carafe.
Jonathan and Francky were just rousing so I returned to the veranda for a bite of continental breakfast. The Hotel Olaffson is not a Holiday Inn Express; there is no waffle maker, but there were some breads and jams laid out with coffee and milk. I sat at a table and surveyed Halloween’s aftermath. To my right a stocky American asked a black guy with dreads whether he could find a place that made coffins by hand. “I don’t want to see the manufactured kind.” The local nodded, sure. The American continued. “Great, but we have to do it before my appointment with the Ambassador.” On my left a guy in black jeans and Harley T-shirt piped up, “Why aren’t you at the cemetery, its Day of the Dead?” “I have to fly out this morning,” I replied. “Why aren’t you there?” “I only go where people can pay me to drive; no one at the cemetery has any money.” It was too early for me to structure any response to that. He stood up, brushed his hands on his thighs and sighed at my ineptitude. “No one respects the Day of the Dead like they used to.”
My nemesis the waiter saved me from having to examine that comment in any depth. He arrived at my table with a bottle of water. “Gratis.” He placed it in the center. I nodded thanks. When I finished breakfast I set a dollar under my plate for him.
The waiter and I had run the full circle of a perfect Haitian interaction. We’d each staked a position, drew a little heat, and then reached d’accord that pleased us both. Now, it was time for me to go home.
Tap Tap Sculpture at the Hotel Olaffson
Quite an incongruous name for a hotel in Haiti! But then, perhaps, so is much of Haitian life. I reacted in the same way to the fascinating tabletop sculpture, although its message is darker.
While in the abstract the phrase “In God We Trust” is harmless and even laudable, we know too well its mercenary reflection of the power of the Almighty Dollar. And compounded by the sculpture’s dollar’s masonic symbols, one thinks again of the “handout,” rather than “hand up,” philosophy that undermines real Haitian progress.
One thing that was not evident in the picture of the sculpture of the bus – it sits beneath a large voodoo sculpture, so the almighty dollar is still subjugated to the gods of the nether world.