I began to write this morning at the best possible time, that moment of exquisite balance when nightbirds are still singing outside the window, and a mist of gray-green light has begun to rise from the ground. The house is quiet save for it’s own organic sounds; the hums, tones, and sighs of a comfortable lifestyle support system calibrated for its occupants. Refrigerator, central heater, and here, in my study, an old clock. Incense sticks in a far corner waft subtle hints of sandalwood, vanilla, and memories of Le Salon Noir.
Haiti is on the frontal lobes of world consciousness for the moment. Everyone knows why, of course. Bloggers may be more plugged into international zeitgeists than most, but everyone is disturbed by the images and moved by the tragedy, possibly even to the point of making a contribution to relief efforts. Some have an expertise that will help and they join with others, get on a plane and go. They go. Others, such as my sister, Florice and her husband, Charlie, have many Haitian friends in their Arizona neighborhood. They pray with, cry with, mourn with, their friends.
The disaster kicked open a rusted file cabinet in a musty old hallway of my unsorted memory coils. The year was somewhere between 1974 and 76. My first husband and I went to St. Croix, Virgin Islands for about five days. He was on an assignment to write a grant for some entity, which I have forgotten if I ever knew, to apply for funds for an alcoholism rehabilitation program in Christiansted. From there, we went to Port au Prince, Haiti to spend three days at a small resort, L’Habitation Leclerc. He had seen a tiny display ad for this exotic place in a magazine, and the heart of this staid evangelical-boarding-school-raised boy quickened. L’Habitation Leclerc originally belonged to General Emmanuel Leclerc and his wife, Pauline neé Bonaparte – – Napolean’s wild child sister.
In the late 1940s, dancer, anthropologist, and author, Katherine Dunham, bought the property. She leased most of it to Olivier Coquelin in 1974. Coquelin is often mentioned for bringing discoteque to New York. He hired architect Albert Mangonés to design a 24-villa luxury hotel around the residence. It was a hot spot for awhile, drawing rock stars, jet setters, and fashion magazine shoots.
My husband and I were just young folks, working for the State of Florida, neither booted nor horsed; most unlikely guests at this posh venue.
The thing that sticks in my mind most vividly, still, is the taxi drive from the airport to the secluded hotel. Crowds of people lined the streets. Some seemed to be living there, with small bundles and baskets on their heads or by their sides. They all seemed to be offering mangoes for sale. I’m sure that my 58 year old eye traversing that path during the same time period would have seen and retained much more than an image of everyone in the street trying to sell mangoes, but that is the only image burned into the retinas of the mid-twenties me from the airport-to-hotel ride.
The three days at the hotel were surreal. Uniformed guards with Uzi submachine guns stood atop the stone wall encircling L’Habitation Leclerc. Guests swam in a sparkling swimming pool. It had a fantastical swim-up bar draped by a waterfall curtain. It was a world of manufactured perfection. Beautiful people, like Paige and Dusty, reclined on chaise lounges while white-coated servants delivered lobster and avocado salads in pineapples, and rum drinks in fresh-cut coconuts.
Mornings brought breakfasts of perfectly ripe tropical fruit and croissants, and a lilting-voiced question: “Banana daiquiri, madame?”
Evenings were spent in the dim-lit dining room/bar, Le Salon Noir. We savored rich French meals with a Caribbean accent, and lingered over espresso and cognac, doors open to the sensuous warm night air. There, in the flicker of tall, white candles, embraced by butter-soft black leather furniture, it was easy to forget that any other world existed beyond that walled compound.
The hotel has been gone for a long time, now. Coquelin went on to create an even weirder resort compound in which his pet baby leopards roamed freely. I am not sorry to say I was never there.
Baby leopards grow into full grown predators. Tectonic plates shift, and it all slip-slides away.