Friday, October 31, 2014

A Halloween Tale of Haitian Vodou

Figurines from the new Field Museum exhibit, "Vodou: Secret Powers of Haiti"
     This really happened.
     A long time ago—in the late 1980s—I went down to Haiti to write about Haitian voodou. 
     Now Haiti is a very poor country. At the time the daily wage, for those lucky enough to have a job, making baseballs or in the bauxite refinery or at the distillery, was $3 a day. A bus ride cost one gourd, or 20 cents.
     So the people were poor, but they were proud, and had dignity, and art, and their own religion, voodoo, or vodou as it is now commonly spelled, which I see as a kind of funky folk Catholicism, complete with its own set of saints, or spirits, which the Haitians call lwa
     I had gone down to visit my college roommate, Didier, who was working with Catholic Relief, helping the poor. But I figured I would keep busy writing a story about vodou while I was there. I had pitched the idea at The Atlantic magazine, and they said, sure, go ahead. I ended up spending about three weeks.
   During the day, my friend would work at his job, helping the poor, which was pretty much everybody, while I wandered around looking for the telltale flags that showed a houngon, a vodou priest, lived there. Sometimes he was elsewhere, working in the fields perhaps, and I would wait while he was summoned.
     It was a culture of rumor, of hearsay, of gossip, of misunderstanding. The big scandal while I was there was over pigs. Haitians raised these scrawny pigs on scraps, and the Americans suggested, no, you need big farm-raised American pigs. You get more pig that way. Only the pale American pigs got sunburned and died, the story went, and the whole thing was laid down to the vast, 200-year-old U.S. conspiracy against Haiti. 
     Other times, the impressions people had about the U.S. were simply heartbreaking. Once I was sitting at a bus stop, and people were crowded around me—I was in the countryside where white people were not common, which again, was pretty much everywhere. And one man was pestering me: help me, help me, help to get a green card, help me come to America. 
     And I challenged him: why? What do you expect to find in America? What is so wonderful there?
     I didn't really expect an answer, but he took the question seriously.
     "In America, I understand," he said, "there are roads that go over other roads." Only then I realized I hadn't seen an overpass in the whole damn country, and if you had never seen one, well, the idea of a road rising up into the air, and leaping over another road, that would be incredible, hard to imagine, something you would want to see with your own eyes.
      I quickly learned that some time before I arrived, a BBC film crew—it was said—had given somebody $600 for something. To stage a ceremony for their cameras. Maybe they did. But that became a standard request, in this country where the daily wage was three dollars: "Give me $600 before I talk to you." They didn't know better, maybe one of these rich white men in their Land Rovers would cough it up. Worth a try. I wasn't in a position, however, to give anybody $600 for anything, and after a few houngons had stalked off, angrily, I realized I had better change my approach.
      It's the journalist bit, I decided, that's setting them off.  I need another story. I was in Cite du Soleil, a vast slum outside of Port-au-Prince. To this day, the proper whiff of smoke and garbage will bring me back there. So I made something up—a journalist lying, I know, shocking. But you do what you have to. To the next houngon I met, who pulled aside a curtain and we ducked to enter his peristyle. A small room, a hut really, with all sorts of polychromatic pictures of saints tacked to the walls, stained bags hanging from the low ceiling the contents of which I hesitated to consider. There were guttered red candles, dirty bottles containing rum and God knows what else. He sat on a stool and faced me, too close. I sat facing him. 
     "Je suis un Americain," I said. "Mon coeur est brise..." My heart is broken, I told him, because of all the women that I've known. Which I suppose was true enough. 
      Can you do something to mend my broken heart?
      This either meant nothing to him, or my French was so bad it got mangled. 
      "Do you have a picture of her?" he said. I had a picture of my girlfriend in my wallet, and I handed it over. 
      "I will make you a thing, where she will not look left, she will not look right, she will only look at you."
      At which I paused. Because while Edie and I had been dating for a few years now, I wasn't sure I was ready to make that leap, to have her never look at anybody else but me. But I figured, I'm in a hut in Haiti. What am I worried about?
      Also, I was getting sick. Bad crayfish or something. I would end up sitting up that night with a group of expatriates, playing poker, drinking glass after milky glass of pastis, which an old Cambodia hand said was perfect for driving off mal du mer. The next morning I would wake up outside, stretched out on a sofa in the yard, with chickens pecking around my head and a rooster crowing. 
    But then I was swaying on a stool, watching this houngon prepare a small parcel. It was made of folded paper, which he sprinkled with spices, wrapped in black thread, with twigs fashioned into crosses. At one point he started lopping the ends off needles with an old sugar cane knife. I looked at the needles and drew back—AIDS was rampant, and I decided if he tried to prick me with them, I would flee. But he didn't, though he did prepare some vile concoction of cologne and rum and smeared it on my cheeks with his thumbs, while I drew back, nearly swooning from the illness and the strong smell of spice and cologne and rum.
     Finally the packet was ready. 
      "Here is the thing," he said. "Touch this to your girl and she will be yours forever."
     I reached for it, but he grabbed my hand by the wrist before I could touch it.
     "Six hundred dollars!" he demanded.
     I will spare you the parlay that followed, kept polite by the sugar cane knife, that sat on the corner of his altar. I ended up paying him $15—five days' wage—which he accepted with disgust. I left without the packet, but the joke was on him. The magic was done anyway. The girl was mine, for the past 25 years at least. When people ask me, what possessed such a pretty, smart wonderful woman to become the wife of a knucklehead like me, I tell them straight-faced and in all candor: "I put a spell on her."

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