Around midnight the dance hall at Olofsson’s, one of Port-au-Prince’s grand hotels, is still dark and quiet, like a funeral home. But a mere 230 miles to the east in Santo Domingo, the noise is deafening at the Jaragua Renaissance. A 12-piece orchestra is warming up for a night of salsa, while gamblers pour in for the overnight shift at the adjacent casino. Neon lights are everywhere.

On Thursdays at Olofsson’s, partygoers used to pack the hall to groove to the fusion of jazz and voodoo chants played by the group Ram. Now, Thursday nights, like the rest of the nights in Port-au-Prince, are ones of mourning in darkness, with only pockets of electricity, supplied by generators and car batteries. Virtually every business in Port-au-Prince has been affected by “bagay-la” (Creole for the “thing”), for all Haitians an event that was more than just an earthquake.

“I don’t know when we’ll play again,” explains Richard Morse, the American owner of the hotel since the mid-’80s. He performs with Ram, and also writes on Haitian events.

“We don’t want to be the first to have a party after such a thing,” he said. “Most of my hotel staff and band members are in the street. They’ve lost their homes and are living in tents.”

Places such as Ibolele, Creole Villa, and Olofsson’s are like aging movie stars, landmark hotels that have become today’s haunts for diplomats, journalists, and Haiti’s new elite, UN staffers and NGO workers. They are bubbles of surreal normalcy in the landscape of chaotic Port-au-Prince, a city of more than 3 million, where more than a million now live in the street or in hundreds of tent camps. The thousands of wild pigs and boars that forage everywhere seem to have a better life.

The hotels are time capsules with their own rich traditions, like Haiti’s French colonial past. Their heyday is a bygone era, from the days of Papa Doc Duvalier, in the 1950s and ‘60s, that lives in black and white photos which plaster the walls like the Ibolele, where world class celebrities and African-American artists like Hazel Scott and Marian Anderson used to call their getaway.

Olofsson’s was at first a military hospital for U.S. troops during the U.S. occupation of 1916 to the ‘30s then became a retreat for the jet-set crowd. Its suites are named after stars from yesteryear like John Barrymore, Ann Margaret, even Ramsay Clark. Graham Greene used to live on the grounds of Olofsson’s, the setting for his novel, ‘The Comedians’, made famous by the film of the same name starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Haiti in those days rivaled Havana as the Caribbean version of a sunny place for shady people

Today the shade has turned into a spotlight on the jarring contradiction of life in Haiti: Children in tent camps trudging through waste-filled mud like mudlarks; people in tent camps standing to sleep when it rains because of the mud and waste; mothers unable or reluctant to breastfeed out of superstitious fear they’ll pass on their trauma to the infants; women washing clothes in the dirty water at curbsides amidst the fumes of passing traffic.

Then there is the Montana, boasting one of the best views from the exclusive Petionville district. The crown jewel of status and joie de vivre in Port-au-Prince, it was also the salon of choice for people that mattered to Haiti’s fragile existence, like U.S. officials and rich Haitian expats. Now it’s a tomb, with the remains of at least 24 guests, some thought to be very important and American, buried in the wreckage,

Unlike the suited, well coiffed security types, who act as the welcoming committee outside the 5 star hotels in Santo Domingo, at the Montana there are instead the young soldiers of the 82nd Airborne, guarding the gates of the ruins like a checkpoint in Baghdad. Except it’s the Green Zone gone black, and no one is welcome.

“You have to ask the U.S. Embassy for permission,” explained an Army Ranger, politely asking us not to film and to leave.

But attempts to ban filming at a place like the Montana are a little pointless, because they can’t conceal the reality of what the quake really represents to many, something that goes beyond just physical damage.

“This place is run and owned by a few people and it takes an event such as this earthquake that I call Samson to expose what Haiti’s become. Now we can start over,” says Morse very bluntly. Besides the wreckage of the Montana, he ticks off the heavily damaged Presidential Palace, Parliament building, main courthouse, central prison, together with numerous other government offices, as examples of power and past corruption that have been crippled by the quake. He compares the destruction to the biblical wrath of Samson who tore down the walls of a temple.

With such a lack of reference points to any order in Port-au-Prince, you have to get your bearings by looking east towards the Dominican Republic (DR), Haiti’s Spanish colonial cousin. The relationship between the two is the greatest and most bitter contradiction of life here. A 40-minute flight aboard a 19-seater Tortuga Air flight takes you from the hell of Port-au-Prince to the design of a city, also numbering 3 million, that works and also sizzles: Santo Domingo.

Salsa is the local currency and dialect. Just breathing the air is different. Getting off the flight is like a lifelong smoker who has quit and is on his first day without smokes.

The Dominican Republic took the right exit leading to development. Haiti was on that same road. Both had their struggles with democracy, dictators, and foreign occupation, and were on the same path to progress. But Haiti’s rulers and wealthy families were weighted with more corruption, acting like drunk drivers for decades, so Haiti missed the turn, instead plunging the country into a ditch made deeper by the quake.

“I don’t know why everyone is so shocked by what they’ve seen, of how people are living because of this, when they shouldn’t be,” Morse is pointing out. “It was bad enough before this. People cooking in the street with their three pieces of wood. Now they’ve got a sheet of plastic and they’re not complaining. They’re better off,” he adds with irony.

The UN ranks the Dominican Republic 90 in its development index of 182 countries, ahead of countries like Jordan and even South Africa. Haiti ranks 144. Among African countries only Chad, Mali, and Niger, are worse off. Life expectancy in the DR is nearly 74. In Haiti it’s 61. And you’re more likely to read and write in the DR than in Haiti by a wide margin. In Haiti, 80 percent live below the poverty line of $2 a day. That was before the quake.

For all the squalor of their extreme poverty though Haitians display a disarming calm and dignity. Their politeness was unnerving whenever foreign journalists entered in their camps. On Sundays somehow they always manage to salvage their Sunday best for any church service.

But only decades ago, the DR was once the poorer, jealous cousin, nursing a historical grudge against its neighbor to the west. Haiti actually ruled the entire island of Hispaniola for 22 years following the success of its slave revolt against France in 1804, and tried to impose French on its Spanish side. Today, the DR maybe now gloats but also with some sadness.

“Nobody knew about us,” exclaims Maria del Carmen Obijo, a Dominican businesswoman, while driving proudly through the posh Anacaona neighborhood, and past the newest mall, the Acropolis. “In the 1970s, Haiti had a higher standard of living and was more popular. My mother always went to Port-au-Prince to buy French perfume. Every week wealthy people would go there to buy the perfumes, wine, and champagne. We couldn’t import those things. It was always Haiti. Club Med even opened its first club in the Caribbean there {1975}. Now look at us!”

Before the quake the DR was already Haiti’s lifeline. Like the Thursday’s at Olafsson’s which were once so special, Mondays and Wednesdays in DR are always more vital for ordinary Haitians. That’s when the DR opens its 3 main border crossings to allow Haitians to flock to the markets to buy rice, beans, eggs, meat, and clothes. Haiti now has to import 51 percent of its food, including 80 percent of its rice needs.

In the historic center of Santo Domingo, you could be forgiven for comparing that vast piazza at the end of Calle de Conde for St Mark’s in Venice. The tourists are only outnumbered by the pigeons. It’s very Old World. A statue of Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the New World, not far from Santo Domingo, stands in the middle of the square, pigeons draped on his arms like a clothesline. The palace Columbus used to call home, only blocks away. And the Cathedrale Santa Maria Primada de America still stands and is working, the oldest cathedral in North America. 1505. Tour guides lead groups of shutterbug tourists inside. You’d think it was the Duomo in Florence.

Port-au-Prince has its own age-old cathedrals to rival this one, but now they are graveyards. We passed by the Holy Trinity Cathedral, known for its murals of biblical scenes with black characters, now being used as an outhouse where a naked man casually took his shower, using a pail of water.

The giant cathedral bells now only chime in Santo Domingo, their sound mixed with the salsa music from nearby CD stores. That same music throbs at night on the dance floor at hotels like the Jaragua, and couples give the performance of their lives, doing dips, turns, and the tango twist with fanatic precision in outfits out of GQ and Vogue. Oscar de la Renta, one of the favorite sons of the DR, would approve.

On a similar night in Haiti, you’ll find a different kind of dance. Fabienne Jean sits with the 13 members of her family by a road full of potholes near the airport and the small hotel where we stayed. They sleep in the open air. Some have tents. Fabienne, one of Haiti’s most famous dancers, sits in darkness until a passing car throws light on her shadowy figure. But she is smiling and also dancing.

Fabienne turns over in her mind her favorite moves with that same precision as the salsa dancers, silently stroking the stump that was once her right leg, lost to the quake, dreaming the same dream of dancers in Santo Domingo, except there they dance simply for passion. Fabienne too, but she’s also dancing to keep from going crazy. She is dreaming that she’ll dance again with the new leg promised her by a U.S. prosthetics maker. She will likely be back on her feet again long before Haiti ever will be.

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