behind the stench of Port-au-Prince, Manno and I are heading up
into the hills of Laboule to have Sunday dinner with his aunt and
uncle. I put on a long cotton dress, tie my hair up in a French
twist, and try my best to look properly put together for this meeting-of-the-in-laws
event. Should we bring a bouquet of flowers? A bottle of wine? I
feel as if I should have a fresh-from-the oven casserole cradled
in my hands.
"No," says Manno, "let's just get in the car and
bring ourselves." Manno is Joseph Emanuel Charlemagne, Mayor
of Port-au-Prince, and my beau of six months.
Barely a few miles out of the city, the air feels cooler and cleaner.
No more flies swarming around curbside butchers as they hack away
at dead goats. No more swollen-bellied children, their hair turned
orange from malnutrition, pounding on the windshield begging for
money. No more images that scald the eyes.
Driving on Route de Delmas, we pass through the posh suburb of Pétionville
where gated mansions hide behind walls topped with broken glass.
Equipped with electric generators, private water pumps, and enormous
satellite dishes, they serve as shelter for the mulatto oligarchs
who have lucrative businesses in Port-au-Prince, but rarely venture
down into the rusting tin-roof shacks of the city. In Pétionville,
the surrounding mountains look like summer in the Swiss Alps, and
the scent of French perfume punctuates the air. Flocks of doves
can be heard chortling in the trees.
As we turn a corner, we come upon an accident. A new Mercedes had
just crashed into a crowded tap-tap. We stop, get out of the car,
and try to assess the situation. A bourgeois Haitian dressed in
a beige linen suit and Panama hat has been driving the Mercedes
sedan. The tap-tap, a small, extravagantly painted bus used to transport
locals around the island, is full of mothers and children on their
way home from buying sacks of rice in the city.
Like most tap-taps in Haiti, this one has a unique name. Amid the
psychedelic images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, purple orchids,
lions, tigers and leopards, painted in bold letters on the front
bumper of the bus is: Racine Poél -- a Creole expression
that loosely translates into: Pubic Hair Plucker.
Standing beside the tap-tap, the man in the Panama hat is talking
to the police on his cell phone. Within earshot of the passengers,
he gives his name, age, home address, and location of the accident
to the officer on the line.
"What's the name of the tap-tap?" we hear the officer
ask through the speaker on the phone.
"It doesn't have a name," says the man in the Panama hat.
"All tap-taps have names, Monsieur. Take a look at the front
of the bus."
"Ugh, I think its name is Plumer."
Well, there's a big difference between Racine Poél (pubic
hair plucker) and Plumer (feather plucker), and both the
man in the Panama hat and the women on the bus know this. Laughing
hysterically, the women start screaming, "Racine Poél,
Racine Poél, Racine Poél, Racine Poél, Racine
They obviously have no problem shouting the words so the officer
on the line, and anyone within a two-mile radius of the accident,
can hear them. But the man in the Panama hat finds it undignified
to speak those words in public, and insists on calling the bus Plumer.
But, help is on the way, we hear. Good. We get back in our car and
About an hour after leaving Port-au-Prince, we pull up to the house
in the hills. Manno's Aunt Dalie and Uncle Raymond come running
out the front gate to offer hugs and kisses to us both. She is wearing
a pink silk blouse and black trousers; he's in a cotton guayabera
and khaki pants. Raymond Desvarieux was born here in the hills of
Haiti, but worked for the Ford Motor Company in New Jersey for over
30 years. His wife is a perky little housewife who gave up a comfortable
middle-class life in New Jersey because her husband wanted to spend
his retirement years in Haiti.
The Desvarieux home, perched on a hill with a view of the Caribbean
Sea, is a comfortable two-story house full of richly upholstered
sofas, marble coffee tables, lace doilies, Haitian paintings, and
a collection of crystal keepsakes -- the fruits of laboring through
long, cold New Jersey winters. The windows are open and crisp air
blows through the gauzy curtains. As soon as we enter, Aunt Dalie
brings out a mahogany tray and offers us fresh papaya juice and
a plate of cheese and crackers. A housekeeper pops her head out
of the kitchen, but is too shy to say hello. Then, after a quick
tour of the house, Aunt Dalie sits down on a sofa in the living
room and orders us to go upstairs.
"Your Auntie wants you two to go up to the guest bedroom, take
your clothes off, lie down on the bed, and have a little fun,"
she says with a wink. "Now go, I give you my permission, and
when you're done we'll have a nice dinner set out on the table waiting
When we get to the guest bedroom, I can't quite get the hang of
this thing. "Is she telling us we have to have sex before we
can eat dinner?" I ask Manno.
"Yes, darling. Come, just relax," he says as he throws
his pants and shirt over a chair.
Hmmm. And to think I wanted to impress Aunt Dalie by bringing a
Later on at the dinner table, as we're about to dig into our roast
turkey and poached fish, Uncle Raymond tells us that many, many
years ago when he was a child, he had an uncle who served as Mayor
of Port-au-Prince. They were good times, and all went well, until
his uncle was poisoned and died. It was poison placed not in his
food, but on the knife he used to cut his food. "Bon appetite,"
Uncle Raymond says as he lifts his glass of chilled white wine.
Quickly, the conversation slides toward sex. "Did you have
a good time in the bedroom?" asks Aunt Dalie, as she playfully
rolls her Betty Boop eyes. "Should I go in and change the sheets
so you can go back and do it again?"
Oh it was fine, thank you. Would you please pass the pepper?
"You know, our daughter had to divorce her husband because
his penis didn't work," says Uncle Raymond. "It was small
and flaccid all the time, and almost drove her mad. Isn't that a
Terrible, just terrible.
"Does Manno wash your panties?" asks Uncle Raymond.
This one completely throws me. Noticing the confusion on my face,
Uncle Raymond tells us that he loves to gently hand-wash Aunt Dalie's
panties and then hang them outside on a line to dry. "It's
a true sign of love and affection, very important in making a woman
feel wanted by her man," he tells us.
I find the conversation startling, but refreshing. There's an uninhibited
lightness about it, an erotic territory with no boundaries marked
on the map. Why waste a Sunday afternoon chit-chatting about the
weather when you can dig into the essence of life?
Later, as we leave the house and are about to back out of the driveway,
I spot Uncle Raymond's laundry line with five pairs of Aunt Dalie's
black lace panties billowing in the wind, like fingers waving "Goodbye.
Come back soon."
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