Letters From Haiti
We were just standing around in somebody's yard, as I recall. I didn't know the guy but I was eating his food and drinking his beer. I was talking to my friend Dan, a furniture refinisher, artist, and skull collector, and he said, "We're going to Haiti." I didn't know who "we" was so I included myself. "All right," I said.
But I was dreaming. I realized the day Dan said he'd got the tickets that I didn't have any money. Nor did I have time to be doing such a thing. Also I was a little nervous, what with all the Serpent and the Rainbow and Duvalier stories I'd heard. Then someone said, "Oh, there's an election campaign going on while you're down there. You'll probably get shot." Someone else had an even funnier scenario: my last public appearance would be a grainy newspaper photograph of a head on a stick in the middle of a politically enraged mob. Ha ha.
Times have changed since the Sixties - not that I'm that old, but almost. Back in those days, if you told someone you were going to Haiti, they sould say, "Okay, great." But now everybody I told just said, "Why? What for? Why bother?" One guy said, "What are you gonna do there?" I said I'd probably go to nightclubs and take my cappuccino in sidewalk cafes. I said I thought Haiti might be the 27th arrondissement of Paris or something. I was being sarcastic.
It seems that over the last ten years we have progressed from a "Why not?" liberalism to a "What for?" conservatism. I don't know why. I did notice that Time that week had some article about our nervous American society, impending war, economic collapse, racial tension, AIDS, and mounting instances of cultural backsliding snowballing into a mass sense of despair. So why are people questioning my motives? Maybe it's the curse of the aging baby boom that we question all romantic yearnings. I don't know. I kept looking at my plane ticket - Port-au-Prince. You can't get more romantic or exotic than that.
The plane landed safely and everyone applauded - a strange and disconcerting custom. Maybe it was just my imagination, but there seemed to be weeds growing in the cracks of the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport.
A tired-looking banjo band was there to greet us, but our guide/friend Pierre wasn't. Lots of people were willing to take his place, though. One of these people hustled us to an expensive cab that took us to a hotel we couldn't afford, and then we had to pay another artificially expensive fare to get to a hotel we could afford in the center of the city.
It took me only a few minutes of being in Haiti to realize I didn't understand French any more. (Like I ever did.) But then, it's not really that hard to communicate. People usually know what you want. They might try to overcharge you for it, but they know what you want. It also didn't take long to realize we were about the only tourists. The tourists don't come around any more - everyone said that - so a lot of the hotels aren't open any more. The ones that are open (that we could afford) are all pretty much the same. Our hotel room had the standard blue-green walls, evenly smeared with dirt right up to the ceiling. The wash basin had mosquito larvae in it. There wasn't any running water unless you asked for it. Once in the morning and then again in the afternoon someone came around and flushed the toilets.
The next morning we stepped out onto the Rue de Centre. The din is the first thing that gets you, then the sun. The sun is like a hammer, but the noise is worse - insistent, mercantile. The whole of central Port-au-Prince is a vast, riotous marketplace selling every conceivable kind of foreign-made clothing, imported toothpaste, bottles of pills, tall sticks covered with watches. There are women with five-gallon buckets of ice water on their heads that you can't drink. In fact, virtually anything you might need is being sold, but probably nothing you would want. Space is at a premium. People push their baskets and stalls out of the way for cars to pass, then they push them right back, sometimes leaving nothing but a narrow footpath. The streets are piled high with a mixture of garbage and palm fronds, and the sewage flows freely beneath your feet.
It was the rainy season, of course. It always is when I go somewhere. The streets were mud. My shoes weren't dry a single day in the two weeks I was there. My eyes watered and my head ached from the diesel fumes and carbon monoxide. Transportation is a tangled mess, but it's also art. The taptaps (buses) of Port-au-Prince are the best art in Haiti, looking like mobile religious versions of sideshow banners with uplifting Christian mottos and/or catchy American disco phrases in French, Creole, or English. You can learn English these days anywhere in the world, I suppose, simply by studying the T-shirts people wear. It's a weird kind of English, but it's our English I guess, which is maybe kind of sad. I don't know if Haiti is known for its cuisine, but I doubt it. One of the few tourist brochures we had (Haiti is not even mentioned in some of the major guides to the Caribbean) assured us we would ruin our teeth on the leathery meals, but this didn't happen. The boiled plaintains were a little dense, but everything else was actually good. All the restaurants have the same menu: chicken, pork, fish, goat and conch meat, boiled or charred, and served with rice or plaintain and avocado.
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.
The next morning, the morning of the Day of the Dead, the overfriendly and confusing Pierre Estelle Pierre showed up. The guy we were supposed to have met at the airport. He had no problem finding us, since everybody in the area knew where we were. Pierre took us to a huge graveyard. A large group of people was gathered around a man telling bawdy jokes and making fun of others. People possessed by Guede do that. They expose the humiliating details of everyone's life while they laugh and smoke cigars. The high and mighty are special victims, but no one is granted asylum. Death's privilege is to ridicule the living, after all.
That night I ate some bad goat meat and decided I better stay home so as not to be embarrassed. Dan went with Pierre in search of the bambouche again. I woke up when I heard the buzzer. My head was cloudy as I walked the eerily lit halls of the hotel, knocking on doors to find someone to open the gate. Dan said it was very much like the evening before, but instead of a gun somebody threw tear gas or coughing powder into the room and held the doors shut.
The next day, just before we took the bus to Jacmel, I was sitting in the bar because the power had gone out in the hotel, as it did almost every day. I was reading by a kerosene lamp about the Secte Rouge and Cochon Gris, the Gray Pigs, a secret society whose members supposedly eat children, etc. Some guy at the bar was going on about how rich all Americans are, and he wasn't going to listen to anything other than that. I could smell the sewer water so I lit a cigarette. The lights sputtered back on and Jackson was there at our table, showing us what he called his "protection card." It had the Freemason sign on it and the word Tetragrammaton, and some other stuff I didn't understand. Some secret society he obviously belonged to, but it couldn't be too secret or he wouldn't be showing us. Secret societies are big things in Haiti. They have a lot of political and religious power, and are often associated with the dark side of voodoo - the bocors, the practitioners of distasteful deeds. I studied the card with interest while Jackson smiled. Then we caught the bus to Jacmel. Jacmel is a beautiful town on the south coast, full of deserted buildings, old factories, craft shops, and gingerbread houses. There was a bar in Jacmel, a bar to hear rumors in and to drink Barbancourt rum in and chat with the people who drifted through. The Canadian land developer who used to have it good in the Baby Doc days but now things weren't so good, though he was still here and he had a car. The French students who were breeding a new kind of pig because the Americans had killed all the Haitian pigs so they wouldn't catch flu. Some cocaine high-flyer wheeler-dealer who in the past had opened restaurants in New York and had a swimming pool in the hills above Jacmel. The American embassy employee who warned us not to return to Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, for the road would be paved with blood since that was the day the electoral committee would select who could run for president.
There were lots of other people, too, guys who built model ships, guys who did this and that, people who knew things; it seemed everybody always knew more than you did and they took a special pride in that. And there were boats docked off the pier just outside the bar, and you heard stories about what they were doing there. Like first there was the gun-running American sailboat, and then the cocaine-loaded Colombian cargo ship, which incidentally had the same name as the other Colombian ship wrecked on the beach not far from the pier past the bar - in fact, almost right in front of Bizzier's guest house, where Dan and I were staying. A wrecked ship like that is too convenient a symbol. It demanded to be tagged, and it was. On its side was written, "Ki Moun, Ki Responsab?" ("Who is responsible?").
We hung out in this bar on the beach and we had many friends. Indeed making friends with us was probably more financially lucrative than anything else you could do in that town, other than exploiting the land or something. There were Haitian artists hanging out in the bar, too. There are many Haitian artists living in Jacmel. Jacques-Pierre and Jacques-Georges, Nene (our special friend), and Reginald, the bocor's son. We drank a lot of clarin with them. We took coffee with them on the beach in the morning, next to where the fishermen were mending their nets and the boatbuilders were building a boat that once-upon-a-time was going to sneak a bunch of people into Miami. We asked them what the hell they wanted to go to Miami for, but that was one of those cultural impasses where you can't possibly understand the other's perspective.
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.
As I sat one night on the beach listening to the waves, trying to relax, I realized I could not because I couldn't get my ambitions and my thoughts out of my head - even here at the beach I'm thinking about all the shit I have to do back home, and old arguments I had with people because of competition for this or that plum. Then I started thinking about American Express commercials and how those people are able to forget because credit cards make you free. I realized what a miserable specimen of our vacation culture I was, because I wasn't able to forget anything, I wasn't able to buy my way out, in fact I was only remembering more things, things I thought I had forgotten, and realizing how polluted my mind was with the detritus of our way of life, and how I wanted to get back to my computer, my refrigerator, and movies and clothes and cafes and opportunities. I felt like asking the people here, "Do you want this? Do you want all this shit in your head, too?" But I knew how stupid that would be.
The last night in Jacmel we got totally plowed with all these artist guys and the bocor's son. We drank and talked a long time on the corner. Then a funny thing happened with the rum bottle. Dan threw it down the drain and Jacques-Pierre immediately fetched it out. He said it's important to have a bottle wherever there was a group of people gathered at night, because if the police drove by they would see you had a reason to be there and were not just talking, because that could be dangerous.
I thought he might be joking at first. Then the conversation turned to politics, as it always does in Haiti. There were eleven candidates running for president in the election that was to take place December 16. A priest named Aristide, Louis Dejoie, Sylvio Claude, and Marc Bazin were four of the most popular. Some of the candidates were Duvalierists. I asked the people we were with who they liked. There was one candidate in town that day, a light-skinned guy whom a few of my friends thought might be all right. So many other people had been fucking them over, and this guy already had a lot of money and ties to the West, so he didn't need to fuck the people over.
I couldn't recall how that had ever stopped any politician in the past from fucking people over. It reminded me of one time in Greece when these dope sellers accused me of stealing their money and started tearing off my clothes in the street. The police came and saw that I had some money and decided that I couldn't have stolen the dopers' money, because why would I do that if I had my own? There's an innocence to that kind of thinking. I mean, in America nobody would ever buy such a patently absurd line - which is just another example of how corrupt our minds already are.
I started to feel like maybe things weren't going to change in Haiti. Like even as we sat there you could feel the distant eyes on this country, the pressures and interests mounting, the lies taking shape, the stakes of the game, which in some circles means profit and power but to the Haitian people was simply the quality of their daily lives. The West had an interest, there was this party and that party, big money was watching, people in huge rooms in high office buildings were no doubt already thinking about what they could get out of it and how they would fare on the world chess map.
They have a saying in Creole - you sometimes see it scrawled under the all-seeing eye of the Freemason sign - Ge We, Bouche Pe. The eye sees, but the mouth does not speak. This turned out to be a handy reply when I didn't know how to respond to something I didn't understand. People would laugh.
But there was a lot I didn't understand. After all, I was a tourist here. Tourists are supposed to buy things and shut up. I tried. I didn't have much money, but I did buy a picture of the loa Bossou Corbla and Erzulie Freida, and I did buy some dolls with human hair and some steel crosses smeared with some kind of tar that I have stuck up on the walls of my apartment. I really don't think they have anything to do with the bad dreams I've been having, though, or the fact that my friends are having bad dreams. I think that's more to do with the general tension, the coming depression, the collapse of our mortgaged and corrupt economy, the impending war, all those things advertised in Time magazine, and the almost certainly lower quality of life we can expect in the face of these threats, as people become more and more victimized by governments they don't participate in.
And that's how the situation in Haiti is connected to the situation in America. "Ki Moun, Ki Responsab?" is what it says on a busted ship on a polluted beach covered with garbage, in a country where some people live and other people just make movies about zombies. And they say zombies aren't really a common phenomenon, but of course they probably are. They're too convenient a symbol.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.