Letters From Haiti

The local prostitutes and party girls of Jacmel also hung out in this bar, but they mostly dropped out of our party when they realized we weren't going to pay them for their time. There was Michelle the wild one, and Yolanda the beautiful quiet one, and another Michelle, the obnoxious one, whom I'll always remember dressed up in this sequined cat-woman outfit, leaping from her perch on a rusted steam engine carcass and tracking me down the deserted street. She tugged at my shirt with an uncomfortable insistence until I managed to drag her up to the door of a bar, where she suddenly let go, having probably been barred from that establishment for some reason. Perhaps for pestering the clientele.

At night when we were tired of the bar and the banjo band that played there, we went to the fish lady down the road and had a fried fish. Then continued our trek to the peanut butter lady in the TV square, where we ate sandwiches and bananas and drank twenty-cent cups of herb-flavored rum while people gathered to watch Dominican disco on the public TV set and to socialize and play games. Occasionally a stray pack animal would ramble through the crowd. On several nights there was a wake going on. We witnessed four or five funerals during our eight-day stay in Jacmel, and it's a small town. They send the coffin through the streets with a slow, not-quite-New Orleans kind of band made of kids playing banged-up instruments, the procession winding up to the graveyard. We went to the graveyard ourselves. We went past it to the sea and a rocky promontory and watched the water swell and fall.

One day we took a horse ride. We traveled the stony roads past little graveyards of pastel rectangular tombs, past exquisite little broken wooden houses, past men with machetes and children asking for dollars, through green tunnels of banana and coconut palms. I was wearing the straw hat I found washed up on the pile of garbage by the water, so of course it was perfect, and I was getting that pastoral tourist kind of feeling as we climbed high into the hills above Jacmel, hills long since stripped of their forests, where we could look down upon the city, the rivers and streams running white with soap. Our goal was the beautiful clear pool (as it was described in the tourist brochure) at the bottom of the waterfall that you had to climb down to on a thick rope tied to a tree by a guy who asked you for money. But the pool was actually kind of dingy when you got there. Nothing ever is what it's supposed to be, but it's always more if you look at it with the right attitude. Jacmel was a good place for that.

In Jacmel we learned how easy it was to change money on the black market, because you get half again what the official rate is and that can make things cheaper. Back in Port-au-Prince, our man Dushane had made it seem dangerous and said how we had better be careful if we were messing with such things. All the while he was taking our twenties at the official rate and smiling slyly - one of those smiles you only recognize in hindsight.

Dan is into voodoo. I didn't know anything about voodoo except for old movies, like I Walked with a Zombie. In Haiti you can always find someone who knows someone who will "make the good voodoo for you," but unless you're far out in the provinces, what you see is likely being done only for your benefit. We visited a mambo in Jacmel who agreed (for a fee) to make a little ceremony for us, creating the veve of Papa Legba. The veve is the signature of the loa, the gods. They are beautiful and elaborate cabalistic designs, done slowly with cornmeal on the ground, by candlelight. In the musty surrounds of the temple with its wall paintings, sitting in the muddy yard under the soft-scratching palm fronds, with the moon and the sea nearby in the darkness, it was a sensuous experience, as religion should be. And after the initial period of distrust and suspicion, after Dan demonstrated his respect and genuine interest, the people watching became quite open and friendly, as people usually do. Our mambo even offered to make Dan an apprentice houngan.

Haiti is a traditional place. There are some traditions worth breaking in Haiti. The sex roles are pretty well defined here. Women do most of the work and men either make things or sit around. But there are other traditions worth preserving. For instance, you can't be sitting with a group of Haitians that don't share whatever it is they have. They pass their cigarettes around. If one is eating and another is not, he shoves the bowl over. You can't drive or walk down a Haitian road without seeing people laughing. They are slim and strong and good-looking. You can't get on a bus or taptap or even stand in a group of people where everybody isn't soon talking to each other. Everybody seems to know everybody, and you can think this must be a special place. But there is an underlying sadness to it, too, that of a country raped and pillaged over and over by its leaders and foreign governments. And yet they maintain this attitude - I sometimes couldn't tell if it was faith, innocence, or resignation. Things are not good economically in Haiti. They want things to be better, but they don't know how or even if that can be accomplished.

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