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`You've got to see this place, it's unreal'

Muriel Martin set eyes on Haiti in 1956 and just couldn't leave, she told Phil Davison in Port-au-Prince
Muriel Martin, a native New Yorker and longtime doyenne of the American community in Haiti, recalls the first time she arrived here in 1956 on a cruise ship of the West Indies Fruit Line.

"I was with two girlfriends, all of us married, having a break from our husbands. We found the place magical. We were supposed to take a plane back, but we never did. I called my husband and said, `You've got to see this place. It's unreal'."

One year later, she was back, with her husband and infant daughter in tow. But for a couple of breaks, she has lived here ever since. Widowed, remarried and divorced, the elegant blonde known as "Madame Muriel" is one of several hundred Americans who have lived here for decades, convinced the little nation of seven million exercises a voodoo spell that stops people staying away.

Despite the formal pull-out of US intervention forces last week, Muriel and her friends "ain't goin' nowhere".

"Haiti's not a country, it's a feeling," she told me, over rum in her beachfront villa. "It's a country that doesn't make any sense, so there's no point trying to understand it. You've got to feel it."

It was a surreal scene, only an hour's drive from the stench and poverty of Port-au-Prince. Muriel's American friends, Lily and Bobbie, also blonde, sixty-something and widowed, floated on seabeds in still, clear water offshore, while local children gazed in curiosity from a little way off.

"When we moved here permanently with our baby daughter, Jodie, in '57, there was a grass mat on the floor between the beds in the hotel room. I said, `What's that?' and they told me it was for the nanny. I said I couldn't live that way and we got the nanny a room."

The same year, she and her husband, Ben Shindler, who had given up his post as vice-chairman of a big meat-purveying company in New York, attended the inauguration of Franois Duvalier as President of Haiti. Duvalier, nicknamed "Papa Doc", had surprised the candidate of the mulatto lite, Louis Dejoie, the man favoured by the United States.

Through their friendship with John Roosevelt, a son of Franklin D Roosevelt, Schindler was offered the post of US ambassador to the Duvalier regime. But he turned it down. Instead, the couple went ahead with their dream of running a luxury hotel.

They first ran the well-known El Rancho in the lush hills above Port- au-Prince, turning it into a mecca for the wealthy lite. In 1961, Muriel "built" Haiti's first tourist beach, known as the Kyona Beach resort, by shipping in sand from islands near by and constructing jetties that kept the sand from drifting into the sea.

"Haitians, even the wealthy, didn't go to beaches in those days," she said. "Haitians want lighter skin, not darker. But the beach was a great success. We had princesses and countesses from Italy and Ali McGraw spent her 40th birthday at the resort. Someone said to me once, `There's Mick Jagger's wife, Bianca' and I said, `Who the hell's Mick Jagger?' "

Muriel has lived through the Papa Doc dictatorship, that of his son, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc"), - both sustained by the nightly terror of tonton macoute thugs - coups d'tat, military regimes and the US intervention.

Only after Papa Doc's first orgy of terror, in 1963 did she feel the need to return to New York. "Somebody had tried to kidnap Duvalier's kids. Papa Doc went bananas. The macoutes went on a rampage, killing, burning down houses, imposing horrendous terror."

Explaining the mystique of Haiti, she recalled the time that she broke her hip at Kyona Beach a few years ago.

"I was in agony as the ambulance bumped over the dirt road from the beach, when we stopped and I heard the driver's conversation. He had stopped at the main road to buy a watermelon. I was thinking to myself `typical Haiti!', when I heard the sound of constant spitting and realised he was eating melon in the shade of the roadside.''

Long since living alone, but for the "girls" who share her villa for part of the year, Muriel leased the beach resort two years ago to a Haitian businessman.

When I visited the place the other evening, to celebrate Lily's soixante- quelquechose birthday, "Madame Muriel" took me by the hand, walked me around the beach and proudly showed me how the local workers had painstakingly used pebbles and different shades of earth and sand to inlay voodoo symbols into floors, which gave the illusion of marble.

Nixon, the waiter, brought a birthday cake, while Roosevelt, a 40-year- old barman who first helped out at the resort as a 10-year-old, said: "Madame Muriel est toujours ma patronne."

Throughout Haiti, there are men named after American presidents, even after Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over the latter part of the occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

"After President Clinton's visit here last week, you can expect a boom in babies called Clinton around the end of the year," Muriel said.