|Bakery, Haiti, 1987
But first I should explain how I found myself in his antique and book-lined study, sitting across a desk from the head houngan, or voodou priest, of Haiti, who died last week at age 79.
My Northwestern roommate, Didier, had taken a job in Haiti with Catholic Relief Services and, hoping to show him some support and, I suppose, have an adventure too, I volunteered to visit for a few weeks. It was 1987, and Baby Doc Duvalier had just fled the country the year before. Democracy was in full swing, supposedly, and it was a rare moment of optimism for that tiny, star-crossed island nation.
Unemployed or, if you prefer, a freelancer, I justified making the trip by convincing the Atlantic magazine to consider a story about voodou. Thus I found myself scouring the countryside, looking for the distinctive flags and peristyles indicating that the ancient Africa faith —kind of a funky folk Catholicism -- was practiced there.
Of course I had to meet Beauvoir, who was a significant figure in "The Serpent and the Rainbow," Wade Davis' factually-shaky 1985 best-seller on the supposed reality of Haitian zombies. Beauvoir, a chemist trained in New York and Paris who veered into the priesthood in midlife, was portrayed as half shaman, half hustler.
That's how he struck me, an oily figure, part menacing, part ridiculous. He subjected me to a tirade, an hour-long rant on the perfidy of the Reagan administration, claiming that the attempt on Reagan's life was his, Max Beauvoir's doing.
"How did you do that?" I asked.
"With a red candle," he replied.
I did manage to score an invitation the next night to the big, showy ceremonies Beauvoir held regularly.
When it came time for me to leave, he did the thing I hadn't seen before. He held his hands to the side and clapped twice, summoning a servant, a girl of about 12, to take me to the road to catch a tap-tap, the colorful communal taxis that criss-cross Port-au-Prince. On the walk out, I realized I had no small bills, only a $20 in my wallet. A tap-tap back the city cost one gourd, or 20 cents. Figuring I'd have better luck getting change from Beauvoir's servant than from a tap-tap driver, I gave her the $20 and asked her if she could break it. She in turn beckoned over a five-year-old boy, who took the twenty and ran off. I remember standing with her, watching the boy recede, thinking: I am not a savvy traveller.
To my vast surprise, he returned a few minutes later, with a fistful of gourds, an even 100 of them, well-worn, crumbled brown bills that were soft with use, feeling more like leaves than currency. I tipped him, and the girl, and climbed aboard a brightly colored taxi.
The next day's ceremony struck me, at the time, as slightly "spurious"—more tourist show than authentic religious spectacle. But as the drums drove to a frenzied pitch and the mambos wailed, a woman seemed to reach into the fire and fill her mouths with glowing coals, smiling a bright orange crescent in the darkness. I was sure it was a trick, but it was a good trick.