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
"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
"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 Poél."
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 continue.
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 for you."
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 homemade
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 shame?"
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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