They say Jean-Claude Duvalier came here not so long ago, when he was still dictator of Haiti, and lunched copiously on the terrace of the Pension Craft behind a row of potted plants and a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards.
Duvalier is gone now, roughing it near Grasse, and that is good news for Haitians. The Pension Craft and its little terrace are still here, however, dishing up rack of roasted goat and other Creole specialties. And that is good news for a certain kind of tourist who will find this an interesting time to visit Haiti.
I say a certain kind because, clearly put, Haiti at any time is not for everyone. It is abysmally poor. Even the mostly carefully tended visitors inevitably rub up against the poverty. Haiti also is overpopulated. There is a lot of pushing, shoving and sweating. In addition, Haitians are still celebrating the Feb. 7 Duvalier overthrow with strikes, demonstrations and an increase in the general confusion level.
So the vacationer whose idea of a good time is Miami Beach tranquility can save a two-hour flight from Miami and $317 round-trip ticket by staying in Florida, where the telephones work and the atmosphere is more familiar. The winter sun is almost as strong and you can roast your thighs just as well.
Badiau Joseph, however, is waiting here in Jacmel to offer something different. For whatever you care to offer at the end of the day, he will show you around the decrepit charm of this southern coastal city and explain how grand it is to be rid of Duvalier. Badiau, 15 years old and endowed with a superb gap-toothed smile, has counterparts in Cap Haitien, the historic port on the northern coast, in Port-au-Prince, the crowded capital, and all around the country. With a spirit of relief at being free and a sense of accomplishment at having shaken off the dictatorship, Haitians seem particularly eager these days to share their joy with foreigners.
Unfailingly, they will ask the visitors to share a little money in return. But beyond the hustling, the ruckus in Haiti is unlikely to raise danger to American travelers. The State Department, which had put out travel warnings during the protests that preceded Duvalier's flight, has declared the country safe for U.S. visitors again, while continuing to advise travelers to avoid crowds and abide by curfews. The danger of AIDS, which attached to Haiti several years ago, is no greater here than in the United States for visitors who neither have homosexual contacts nor receive blood transfusions, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince says.
In some instances, Americans may get a special welcome. Many Haitians believe the U.S. government played a decisive role in getting rid of the Duvalier family dictatorship and U.S. flags were seen flying during the anti-Duvalier demonstrations.
It is possible, of course, to combine a dip into post-Duvalier spirit with the more traditional attractions of Haiti. For those who want a winter tan as a trophy to carry home, these attractions can include lying on a fine Caribbean beach as well as voodoo ceremonies and scouring galleries for original Haitian art.
Here in Jacmel, for instance, the Hotel la Jacmelienne lies hard against a palm-fringed beach and offers dining overlooking a pool washed by sea breezes. The proprietress, Marlene Denies, will show you the way for the short walk to town. But you do not really have to listen. Badiau or one of his competitors will be on you like a black flash. The secret is not to fight it. Pick a guide who looks nice and enjoy his company. No doubt along the way he will point out a sacked house or two where townspeople have "dechouke'd," or uprooted, a Ton-Tons Macoute, as Duvalier's political policemen were called.
Moro Baruk has a little workshop just down the street where craftsmen manufacture decorative boxes and other popular art works. Forget the cheap monstrosities that usually line souvenir shop shelves. Haitian gadgets have a naive originality that make them genuinely worth looking at, and maybe worth carrying home. Baruk's latest is a brightly painted ceramic jungle animal that, he says, is soon to turn up in New York shops as a belt buckle.
Five minutes away is Renaissance II, a gallery run by Selden Rodman. An American critic of Haitian culture and art, he has taken up residence in one of Jacmel's colonial leftovers that is hung heavy with his collection. You can buy a painting or Rodman's book on Haiti, or just have a look around. In any case, the stroll will lead you to the tobacco warehouse, the wharf and -- hopefully by now it is lunchtime -- the street leading to Pension Craft on the town square.
The Pension Craft rents rooms in addition to serving Madame Craft's eggplant stew and Creole chicken. The Manoir Alexander on the other side of the square is also a place to stay, a colonial mansion overlooking the little Jacmel Bay with an antiquated personality that removes it by centuries from modern hotels travelers are used to in the United States.
In some ways, these establishments symbolize what makes Haiti different. In an era in which quaint often means a mall with "shop" spelled "shoppe," Haiti is authentically quaint. The Hostellerie du Roi Cristophe in Cap Haitien, for example, is an eccentric old hotel with barn-sized rooms and furniture that looks like Napoleon brought it over. According to the guest book, a wife of one of the lesser Napoleons actually did spend some time there during a Caribbean trip.
Modern-day cruise ships from Miami used to stop in Cap Haitien to give passengers a shot at shopping for Haitian art and visiting the colonial fortress overlooking the city. These visits were halted during the unrest surrounding Duvalier's downfall, however, and it is still unclear when they will resume.
In Port-au-Prince, the Grand Hotel Oloffson has taken quaint to the edge of quirky. Originally, it was built in the late 1880s by a French architect as a residence for Demosthese Sam, the son of a Haitian president. When U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1915-34, the elegant old piece of Caribbean gingerbread was used as a hospital for wounded and ill soldiers. A Norwegian sea captain named Oloffson turned it into a hotel in 1935 and it has been growing stranger ever since.
Graham Greene, in his Haitian-based novel "The Comedians," said the hotel looked like a Charles Addams house out of The New Yorker. "You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him," Greene wrote. "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."
Suzanne Seitz, an American who has been running the Oloffson since the death of her husband, Al, in 1982, presides over its uncertain ways with charm and warmth, like an airy party hostess. (Unfortunately, lease problems have threatened her stewardship of the old place in recent weeks. Her departure would rob the Oloffson of much of what makes it special, so travelers might check as they make reservations. Suzanne is not part of the furniture, perhaps, but certainly part of the personality.)
Under her detached smile, an Englishman with undefined connections to the government shows up and sings show tunes in a medley of languages. Or a Canadian whose past includes a beautiful maharani takes over from a Haitian trio and plays jazz into the night. The Oloffson moves through Port-au-Prince like a tramp ship, picking up passengers and asking them no questions as long as they can pay for a ticket.
Unfortunately, paying in Haiti takes money, although hotel prices here tend to be lower than in other Caribbean islands at full-season rates. The Jacmelienne, for example, goes for $98 a night double in winter season, including meals, and the Oloffson charges $125 a night double, including breakfast. A classy French dinner at Chez Gerard or La Cascade in the tony Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville costs about $40 a person.
But as a compensation, the lack of tourists over the last few years has driven down the price of Haitian paintings. In the Oloffson basement, an art-dealer-cum-voodoo-sage haggles willingly with visitors over his unpredictable mix of schlock and beauty. Issa, who if asked will combine predictions with his art sales, has his gallery at home just up the hill. And Aubelin Jolicoeur, the "Petit Pierre" of Greene's novel, has his own stable of painters to sell from.
Jolicoeur shows up nearly every morning for breakfast and perhaps a round of backgammon with guests. He always wears a sparkling suit and carries a walking stick, playing out the role Greene embellished for him. These days he also has to look important for another reason. The soldiers who replaced Duvalier first named him tourism director then elevated him to secretary of state for information and coordination.