Friday, January 29, 2010

Thoughts on Haiti and the Hotel Montana

This photo to the left is from the Hotel Montana in Haiti, the room I stayed in last March. The room was a junior suite; I received a free upgrade because of the availability. The bar behind the sofa had a mini fridge where I stashed my bottled water. The room was in the back of the hotel, overlooking the mountains of Petionville. We always stayed in this hotel because we had a discount rate, had stayed there for years because it was safe.

Until the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010 when the hotel came crashing down.

I've never stayed at any other hotel or guest house during the 16 years I've visited Port au Prince. I've gazed at sunsets from the terrace of my hotel room, stared at the one-room shacks peppering the mountainside, gazed down at the darkness of Cite Soleil while dining on the terrace.

I'm home today, trying to write the newsletter article that is due next week on our special Haiti earthquake edition. It's in first person. I can't write about this tragedy without it being in first person, because for 16 years, Haiti has been part of my life as much as my husband, my pets, my home.

I found a chilling diary entry from 2008, when I was in Haiti... the week of Jan. 12. The post was written at the Hotel Montana, right after I finished dinner. The table was the "prime" table on the terrace, overlooking a vista of the city. The wood slat chairs had metal legs that screeched along the Chattahoochee when you pulled out your seat. Palms and ornamental foliage filled the planters lining the terrace. Inside the restaurant were quiet reflecting pools and a waterfall, with bright pink bougainvillea. White floor to ceiling drapes were tied back in a very open air atmosphere, but they closed the French doors when it rained.
In this photo, the table is just above to the left. Ed, the photographer I had traveled with that trip, had just left.

"I'm gazing at the lights below of Port au Prince. Candlelight flickers on my table. Four torches on a distant mountain remind of a medieval castle, a step back in time in Haiti. Like Haiti, I have to take a step back and reflect and slow down and search inside. I know I won't ever forget the weary eyes of a 22-year-old mother carrying the weight of her malnourished son in Cite Soleil... I talked with the old man here at the Montana who runs the gift shop. He asked about Catherine and I told him she was coming here to meet with me, and just chat. Then a little while later, I was in the News Bar, waiting for her and guess who shows up at the same time Catherine does? The old man who runs the gift shop. They laughed and chatted a little while I sipped my Sprite at the bar. Haiti's like that. Everyone knows each other, it's like a large extended family where everyone at the News Bar, like Cheers, knows your name."

The News Bar with its red and white stained glass sign above the mahogany counter is gone. Msr. Laurent, the head barman who usually poured the drinks, is dead. This is the Hotel Montana now, as I visited it last week. The entire top floor caved in, crashing to the ground and covering the lobby and ornate circular entrance way like a coffin lid.

This photo is of the village shops and apartments. The doorway to the far right leads to the makeshift morgue.

I think about those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and never made it. The woman we saw in the crushed car downtown. The parishioners at the Cathedral trying to flee who were trapped in the doorway by concrete raining upon them. Those still missing at the Hotel Montana.

I say little prayers, because in a way I'm too numb to pray in earnest. I pray for their families, their loved ones, their friends, for grace and strength.

I pray for Haiti to heal and recover.

I haven't talked about the Montana much until now, because of the rescue operations and out of respect for the families of those still waiting for news. I realize I need to write about it now, because I also need closure.

Images of the hotel as it was are burned into memory. The tiny, coffin like elevators that had mirrors and small fans. The button for "lobby" was a silver upside down "7." Like everything in Haiti, the people cleverly improvised when they had to do without.

The bricked steps leading to the first floor, where the original reception desk was, and later it was turned into a little bakery where you could buy pastries and croissants.

The white stained glass model of a church that sat on a small side table by the French doors leading down to the big mahogany tree and the pool. The shoeshine man who sat beneath its shade for years. I remember passing him after breakfast the last time I stayed there and saying a cheerful "Bon Jour." He always had a beaming smile.

Jude, the waiter I've known longer than anyone else at the Montana. "Pomme frites" or "riz?" His wife had gotten into a nasty car wreck last year but she recovered.
Is Jude alive, or dead? I don't know.

The polished wood banister of the staircase leading to the second floor, where I've stayed so many times, and the curved steps leading to the top floors. The gold ornate mirror in the second floor hallway that always showed how tired I looked after a week in Haiti. The heavy wood doors once had old-fashioned keys and locks. They gave you your key with a keyring with a large oblong piece of wood. I once joked with Gina, our photographer, the Montana key rings would make good weapons. You had to leave them at the front desk so the maid could clean your room.

The terraces and open air alcoves that offered privacy and quiet retreats with reading lamps. The downstairs lobby with its mirrors and the reflecting pool with pink bougainvillea. I sat there for 45 minutes last March waiting for our ride and that's when I decided to write my Nocturne Bite using Haiti as the setting, only name it a different island. The hotel featured in Darkness of the Wolf is the Montana. The stone statue of the mother hugging her child used to flank the Montana's lobby entrance.

I did visit the Montana last week. There was a hushed quiet in the air, broken by the murmur of voices and the sudden barking of German Shepherd search and rescue dogs caged for the night.

This photo is of the last sunset I'll see at the Montana, the sun setting over the remains of the village shops. The tarp strung up is to give some privacy for the search and rescue teams to shower off the dust and rubble after they finish.

The sky streaked ribbons of purple and rose as we studied the names of the victims who were identified, and the missing, a Chilean flag perched above the poster boards. A candle flickered on the table where a woman was working on paperwork. Then there were the grim visages of the Chilean police investigation unit, donning haz mat suits as they prepared to go into the makeshift morgue to ID the bodies of those already found.

The stench of dust and death lingered in the air.

I still have reservations for January 25, the day I was to arrive at the Hotel Montana. We'd discussed visiting Haiti earlier in the month, but decided against it. How close would we have come to being there Jan. 12 when it all came crashing down?
We wouldn't have been at the Montana that Tuesday, but in Jacmel, in another hotel that also collapsed and was destroyed.

I don't know why these things happen. I can't even begin to try to understand the why. All I can do it forge ahead, say prayers for those who lost their lives, strength for their loved ones and family, for those still in Haiti who struggle even harder now with daily life, and try to help as best as I can.

And maybe, some day, be able to look back at Haiti and my time there, and all my visits to the Hotel Montana, the sodas poured by a busy Msr. Laurent, the memories and the thoughts of those who were there to help Haiti and died in a hotel that was the best in Haiti, and not feel this knife like pain in my chest.

I know it will be a long time before I can forget the Hotel Montana. When I walked through the tall metal gates for the last time, they creaked slowly shut behind me, closed by a Chilean soldier shouldering a rifle. The Montana is no more.

God bless all those who perished in the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, and all those who lost a loved one, and those in Haiti struggling to live on.


Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and impressions, Bonnie. I am glad you are home safe. It is heartbreaking to think about the tremendous losses there.

Mary Ricksen said...

I am so sad for the people of Haiti. The suffering and death, no words can describe it better then you did.
I am happy though, happy that you weren't there. You have much more to do before you are through. Thank God you weren't there. Or you would not be alive.
Thinking about losing you is unimaginable. But now the danger of what you do is so apparent.
Be well Bonnie, and you have my heart in this. May yours heal from this pain.

Jim said...

Bonnie, thank you... Those of us who have recollections of the Montana, and its people, needed the words you have put before us. So many memories... Such deep sadness...

Bonnie Vanak said...

Thanks Nancy and Mary.

Jim, I hope the post about the Montana helped a little.