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.
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.
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.
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?
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.