Letters From Haiti

But then the food was not what we came for. We came to Haiti for Guede, the annual celebration of the god of the dead, Guede Nimbo. We wanted to find the bambouche, the party. So this guy Dushane, who operated the bar downstairs in our hotel, got this other guy Ernesto (who was sometimes called Jackson, and may have another name or two) to take us around. Dan said, "I hope this isn't a dumb idea." We were expecting a weird night, and we started out simply hoping to make it back.

Jackson put us in the back of a taptap and off we went to the Carrefour (the Crossroads), that yeasty quarter of Port-au-Prince known for many strange goings-on, where there would be many hounforts (voodoo temples) and Guede bambouches. We ended up at one of the main ones. We could hear the drums as we walked in. Most people didn't seem to mind us being there, but a few did want a token payment for the privilege.

The mambo (the priestess) was dressed up like Baron Saturday - a/k/a Baron Samedi, Baron Cemetery, Baron of the Cross, Three Shovels, Three Hoes, Three Picks. Baron Samedi is the familiar manifestation of Guede. He smokes a cigar and dresses in black and curses and gets as lewd as he pleases. It was a tightly packed room, with revelers feverishly slam-dancing, and fights breaking out like clockwork about every three minutes, and people blowing hot pepper rum in each other's faces, and here and there a case of possession. A saxophone and a trumpet were talking to each other as people crowded the central peristyle where the gods descend. I was starting to get over my anxieties about violence when a couple of women went after each other with bottles, and they weren't kidding. Then some men got involved and they weren't kidding either, and that's when the gun came out and one guy on the balcony caught it in the stomach. It wasn't any Saturday-night special, either. It was a pretty nice gun. I wondered where he got it as I made my way toward the door.

Everybody was screaming and trying to get out the same small door. It was taking a little longer than was really comfortable. I finally got out and saw a couple of people trampled by the mob as we ran up the gangway and back out into the street. Some people were yelling, "Police!" and some were yelling, "Cerveza!" and lots of people were deciding to go somewhere else. So we did too.

Jackson took us on long walks down dark sidestreets and alleys, listening for the drums, searching for the next bambouche. We would run into people in these quiet streets under the lamps, like a pack of Guede celebrants dressed in bowlers and whiteface, drinking pepper rum out of bottles containing crosses and coffins. They were sort of friendly as they asked us for money. We gave them some coins but I think they wanted paper. A guy asked us, "Where the hell are you going at this hour?" He said it just like that, too, like he'd lived in America for a while. We didn't know where we were going.

We ended up at two other hounforts. One was kind of tired and over, the other was going strong and they were videotaping the festivities. Which seemed weird to me, because I couldn't connect video with this religion of the night, but that was my problem. I wasn't really supposed to be there anyway; at least I always felt like I was intruding and making people uncomfortable at their own ceremony.

Finally we were tired. It hadn't occurred to Jackson that there wouldn't be any taptaps back to town, so we ended up in some bar waiting until 4:00 a.m. or something while a couple of girls made friends with us, and a couple of men stood around watching them make friends with us, and that made me nervous. Then a taptap suddenly turned on its lights, so we rushed over to it and the guy drove us back to central Port-au-Prince. But then the police stopped us, wanting to know what a couple of blancs were doing out at that hour. We were detained for a few minutes, probably just for fun, while Jackson chatted up the cops.

Strangely, one of the cops accompanied us for a block or two so that he and Jackson could shake down a street merchant and split the money. This was four o'clock in the morning, but then graft knows no hours I guess. We got a kick out of that, and started thinking maybe this Jackson guy was a Ton-Ton Macoute, the underground army drawn from the lower classes and the peasants who were in league with the houngan (voodoo priests) back in the Duvalier days. Which could explain why he knew all the mambos everywhere we went.

Anyway we made it home and were glad. "This is a strange country," I said, and Dan nodded as the candle flickered on the nightstand and the cock crowed in the yard outside and that special tropical combination of the sweet and the septic wafted through our window. I watched the handprints dance on the walls of our blue-green room and finally fell asleep.

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