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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Hotel Oloffson, Port-Au-Prince

In Port-au-Prince, I stay at Hotel Oloffson, a graceful old mansion with Vodou flags and Haitian naive paintings with mysterious, enigmatic motifs, many of which have Vodou significance.  On Thursday nights, the RAM band, headed by Richard A. Morse, Oloffson's American owner, rocked away in an unique musical form that combines electric rock and roll and Haitian-Vodou ritualistic tunes.  It is said that some of the musicians and members of the audience regularly fall into trance, possessed by powerful Vodou gods attracted by the music.
 
The Oloffson is an amazing hotel that has been a witness to many episodes of Haitian history.  According to Wikipedia, "The hotel was constructed in the late 19th century as a private home for the Sam family. The head of a prestigious and influential family in Port-au-Prince, Tirésias Simon-Sam was president of Haiti from 1896 to 1902. The mansion was built by Tirésias's son, Demosthenes Simon Sam. The Sams lived in the mansion until 1915, when their cousin Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was selected from among a group of powerful politicians to assume the post of president, the fifth president in five years. Guillaume would be president for a scant five months, however, before being torn to pieces by an angry mob. United States President Woodrow Wilson, concerned that the Haitian government might be seized by Rosalvo Bobo, who was thought to be sympathetic to the Germans, ordered the United States Marine Corps to seize Port-au-Prince. The occupation would eventually extend to the entire nation of Haiti."
Subsequently, the mansion was leased to a Swedish sea captain named Werner Gustaf Olofsson, who turned it into a hotel.  Thus began the legendary history of the hotel as the hotel of choice for famous writers and people of the arts, especially in those days when Haiti was a popular holiday destination for the rich and famous.  According to Wikipedia, "some of the suites in the hotel were named after the artists and writers who frequented the hotel, including Graham Greene, James Jones, Charles Addams, and Sir John Gielgud."  My room was named after Alvin Ailey, a renowned Afro-American choreographer and activist.
In 1987, after years of dilapidation and neglect – the result of years of economic stagnation following the dictatorship of the Duvaliers ("Papa and Baby Doc") – American Princeton graduate and aspiring rock and roll star, Richard Morse, took over the lease of Oloffson. 
 
According to a legend, this happened after he was offered the hotel  for US$20 after a drunken night party with a Vodou priest.  He renovated the place and installed modern conveniences.  Once again, Hotel Oloffson has resumed its previous role as a grand old hotel of the Caribbean, like Raffles is for Singapore, albeit in a small way. 
Twenty years have elapsed, together with an endless cycle of political and economic crisis in Haiti.  The hotel looks somewhat tired.  Paint is peeling off and the facilities are outdated and look tired.  Perhaps, the Oloffson needs an international chain with the financial resources to take over and allow it to realize its true potential.
 

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